Inspector Queen’s Own Case (23 page)

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Jessie shivered. “What do we do now?”

“Who knows? It might take us months to locate her. If ever.”

He stared ahead.

A few miles later Jessie touched his arm. “Richard.”

“Yes?”

“Why don't we give up?”

“No!” he said.

“But it seems so hopeless.”

To Jessie's surprise, he smiled. “Maybe not, Jessie.”

“What do you mean?”

“It's his round, all right. But we've just learned something about Mr. Alton K. Humffrey.”

“We have?” Jessie sounded dubious.

“This business of snatching his wife out from under our noses confirms my belief that the murder of that baby is his weak spot. It's not theory any more. We've learned something else, too. The way to get at Humffrey is to force his hand. If we can surprise him, get him off balance …”

“You've thought of something!”

He nodded. “If it works, it could finish this off at one stroke.”

“What is it, Richard?”

“Let me think it through.”

For some reason, Jessie felt no elation. The title of an old Robert Benchley book,
After 1903, What?
, crossed her mind.
After Alton Humffrey, What?
She slumped down and closed her eyes …

She opened them to see the airy span of the George Washington Bridge moving by on her right.

“I fell asleep,” Jessie murmured.

“And looked like a young chicken,” he said in a peculiar way.

Jessie grimaced and sat up. “I'd make pretty tough chewing, I'm afraid.”

“Jessie.”

“Yes, Richard.”

“Wasn't it a funny feeling? Back there in Stamford, I mean?” He said it with a laugh.

“You mean when Elizabeth said Sarah Humffrey had been spirited away? I thought I'd die.”

“No, I mean you and me.” He was very red. “Pretending to be engaged.”

Jessie stared straight ahead at the traffic. “I didn't see anything funny about it,” she said coldly. “I thought it was nice.”

“Well …”

Yes? Jessie thought. Yes?

But when he spoke again, it was to explain the plan he had worked out.

“It's that one over there, Jessie,” Richard Queen said.

It was Wednesday evening, the 28th of September.

Jessie turned the coupé into the Pearl driveway and switched off her ignition. It was a spready old white clapboard house covered with wisteria and honeysuckle vines on a peaceful side street in Taugus. Great maples shaded the lawns, and on the old-fashioned open porch there were two rockers and a slide-swing.

He got out of the car, handling a large square flat package as if it contained eggs.

But Jessie was looking at the house. “What a lovely place for two people to live out their lives together.”

“It's too big for two people, Abe says.”

“I'll bet that's not what Mrs. Pearl says.”

“You'd win,” he chuckled. “Becky's children were born in this house, and to her that makes it holy. When Abe bought the beach shack, he had to fight to get her to go out there during the summer months. She isn't really happy till they close it up in September and come back here.”

“She's lucky.”

“So is Abe.” He added, “In more ways than one.”

Jessie sighed and got out. They went up on the porch, Richard Queen carrying the package carefully.

The door opened before he could ring the bell. “Richard, Jessie.” Beck Pearl embraced them enthusiastically. “Let me look at you two! Abe, they're positively blooming. Did you ever see such a change in two people?”

“Well, get out of the way and let them come in,” Abe Pearl grumbled. “I don't know why you wouldn't let me go to the door till they came up on the porch——”

His wife's glance withered him. “Let me have your things, Jessie. I can't imagine why Abe didn't insist on your coming for dinner. He's so stupid about some things!”

She carted Jessie off, and Abe Pearl took his friend into the living room.

“I thought you'd never get here. What held you up, Dick?”

“Daylight.” The Inspector laid his package gently on the mahogany refectory table. “Mind if I pull the blinds?”

“You're acting damn mysterious. What's up?” The Taugus chief kept eying the package.

“Let's wait for the women.” He drew all the shades down to the sills. Then he went back to the table and stood there.

The women came in chattering. But when Beck Pearl saw the old man's face she stopped talking and sat down in a corner. Jessie took a chair near her and folded her hands in her lap.

“Abe,” Inspector Queen said, “what would you say if I told you we've finally got the goods on Alton Humffrey?”

The Taugus policeman looked from him to the package.

“In that thing?”

“Yes.”

“So it's back in my lap.” The big man came slowly to the table. “Let's have a look.”

The Inspector undid the twine and removed the heavy wrappings with loving care. Then he stepped back.

Abe Pearl said, “My God, Dick.”

The package contained two sheets of thick plate glass. Between them, spread flat but showing wrinkle marks, as if it had been found crumpled but had been smoothed out, lay a lace-edged pillowslip. The slip was of some dainty fabric; the lace was exquisite. By contrast the dirty imprint of a man's hand, a trifle blurry but unmistakable, was an offense. The print lay just off-center, the impression of a right hand from which the tip of the little finger was missing to the first joint.

“Where did you find this?” Abe Pearl demanded.

“You like it, Abe?”

“Like it!” The chief bent over the glass, scrutinizing the pillowslip eagerly. “That missing fingertip alone—! Wait till Merrick sees this.”

“You owe Jessie an apology, Abe, don't you?” Richard Queen said, smiling.

“I guess I do, Miss Sherwood! I can't wait to see that iceberg's face when he gets a squint at this,” Abe Pearl chortled. “But Dick, you haven't told me where you got it.”

The old man said quietly, “We made it.”

The big man's jaw dropped.

“It's a forgery, Abe. And judging by your reaction, a successful one. That's what I wanted to find out. If it's fooled you, it'll fool Humffrey.”

“A forgery …”

“We've been working on this for a week. Jessie went around from store to store in New York till she found a pillowcase exactly like the one that disappeared. What's this lace called again, Jessie?”

“Honiton. The case itself is batiste.” Jessie glanced at the big policeman. “So of course, Mr. Pearl, I'll let you take your apology back.”

He made an impatient gesture and turned away. But he turned back at once. “Tell me more, Dick.”

“One of the boys, Pete Angelo, went up to Boston. We figured because of Humffrey's missing fingertip he'd likely have his gloves made to order, and we were right. Pete located his glovemaker, and got hold of a pair of gloves the old fellow'd made for Humffrey that Humffrey didn't like. Then we enlisted Willy Kuntzman, who used to be one of the best men in the Bureau of Tech Services—” the old man grinned—“retired, of course—and Willy went to work on the right glove. He came up with a cast of Humffrey's right hand in that plastic, or whatever it is, that looks and feels like flesh. Then, with Jessie describing the handprint she'd seen on the original pillowcase, Willy doctored the duplicate, and this is the result.”

“Isn't this taking a hell of a chance?”

Richard Queen returned his friend's look calmly. “I'm willing to take it, Abe. I was hoping you'd be, too.”

“You want me to pull this on Humffrey.”

“The preliminary work, yes.”

The big man was silent.

“Of course, Abe, it's not absolutely necessary. I can do the whole thing. But it would have more of an effect if you set it up. The crime was committed in your jurisdiction. You're the logical man to have found this.”

“Where?”

“You don't tell him where. It won't even occur to him to ask. The sight of this ought to throw him for a loop. If he should ask, toss it to me. I'll be in on the kill.”

“Listen, Dick, you've got a rock in this,” the police chief said slowly. “All right, Humffrey left his right handprint on a pillowcase just like this, and disposed of it that night before we got there. How? It must have been burned up, we said. Or it was cut to pieces and flushed down a toilet. Humffrey knows how he disposed of it, doesn't he? If he burned it, how could we produce it? If he cut it up, how come it's whole again?” Abe Pearl shook his head. “It won't work. He'll know in a flash we're trying to pull one.”

“I don't think so, Abe.” The Inspector seemed unperturbed. “I didn't agree with you and Merrick when you discussed it that night, although I didn't want to put my two cents in with Merrick there. It's highly unlikely that Humffrey'd have burned the pillowslip. It was a hot night in August. He'd hardly have risked making a fire that might have been seen or smelled by somebody in the house—Jessie here, a servant, Dr. Wicks, even his wife—and remembered later just because it was a hot night in August.

“As for cutting it to pieces, he didn't have to, Abe. The material is so fine you can take this thing and crumple it into a small ball. He could have flushed it down a drain in one piece. A man who's just taken the life of an infant and expects the police any minute—no matter what substitute for blood is flowing through his veins—isn't going to go in for anything fancy. That only happens in my son's books. Humffrey had only one thought in mind, to get rid of the pillowcase in the quickest and easiest way.

“Sure, Abe, I don't deny the risk. But the way I see it, the odds are way over on our side.” He shrugged. “Of course, if you'd rather not have anything to do with it——”

“Don't be a horse's patoot, Dick. It's not that.” Abe Pearl began to pull on his fleshy lower lip.

The old man waited.

“It is that, Abe.” It was Beck Pearl's soft voice. “You're thinking of me.”

“Now Becky,” her husband shouted, “don't start in on me!”

“Or maybe I'm flattering myself. Maybe it's yourself you're thinking of. Your job.”

“Becky——” he thundered.

“The trouble is, dear, you're going soft in Taugus. It's a nice fat easy job, and you've gotten nice and fat and easy along with it.”

“Becky, will you stay out of this? Damn it all——!”

“How would you feel if that little boy had been Donny? Or darling little Lawrence?”

“You would throw my grandchildren up to me!” The big man hurled himself into the armchair with a crash that made the room shake. “All
right
, Dick! What's your plan?”

The next morning two police cars shot across the Nair Island causeway, drove into the Humffrey grounds, and eight Taugus detectives and uniformed men, headed by Chief Pearl, jumped out.

Stallings, the caretaker-gardener, was on his knees in one of the flower beds, planting bulbs.

“Something wrong again, Chief?”

“Nothing that concerns you, Stallings,” Chief Pearl said gruffly. “Get on with your work. Borcher, you and Tinny take the house. You other men, fan out on the grounds—you know what we're after. One of you go down to the beach and keep an eye on that dredger, in case they make the strike.”

“One minute,” Stallings said uneasily, as the officers began to scatter. “I'm responsible, Chief. What are you up to?”

“This is a search party,” the chief barked. “Out of my way.”

“But Mr. Pearl, I got my instructions from Mr. Humffrey. He specially said I was to keep cops and reporters out.”

“He did, did he? Ever hear of a search warrant, my friend?”

“A warrant?” Stallings blinked.

Chief Pearl waved an official-looking document before the old fellow's nose and immediately put it back in his pocket and turned away. “All right, men.”

He went into the Humffrey house on the heels of his two detectives.

Stallings waited.

When all the officers had disappeared, he stole up the driveway to the service entrance, slipped inside, shut the door quietly, and went to the telephone extension in the butler's pantry. He gave the Taugus operator the Humffrey apartment number in New York City.

“The Humffrey residence,” Mrs. Lenihan's Irish voice answered.

“Lenihan,” Stallings muttered. “Is his nibs there?”

“Who is this?”

“Stallings. Got to talk to Mr. Humffrey. Shake a leg.”

“You old fool, what are you up to now?” the housekeeper sniffed. “Drunk again, like as not. Mr. Humffrey isn't here.”

“Where is he?”

“I don't know. All he said was for Henry to have the limousine ready. They drove off early this morning.” Mrs. Lenihan lowered her voice. “Something doing?”

“Plenty. Cops all over the place. Chief Pearl with a search warrant. Don't you have
no
idea where they went?”

“Mercy,” Mrs. Lenihan said faintly. “I don't, Stallings. What are they looking for?”

“How should I know?” Stallings sounded disgusted. “Well, I done my duty.”

He hung up and returned to his bulbs.

In Alton Humffrey's upstairs study, Abe Pearl replaced the study extension on its base softly.

At a few minutes past two that afternoon Stallings phoned Mrs. Lenihan again. This time he sounded agitated.

“Isn't Mr. Humffrey back yet, Lenihan?”

“Not yet,” the housekeeper said. “What's the latest?”

“They just left.”

“That's good.”

“Maybe not so good,” Stallings said slowly. “Maybe not so good, my fine Mrs. Lenihan.”

“Now what? You and the voice of doom! What did they do? What did they say?”

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte
Cold Fusion by Olivia Rigal
When Sorry Is Not Enough by Gray, Millie
Six Degrees of Lust by Taylor V. Donovan
1635 The Papal Stakes by Eric Flint, Charles E. Gannon
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Conference With the Boss by Sierra Summers