Inspector Queen’s Own Case (24 page)

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
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“Nothing. Wouldn't tell me nothing. But Chief Pearl cracked me on the back, and do you know what he says to me?”

“What?”

“‘Stallings,' he says, ‘I got the funniest feeling you're going to be looking for a new job,' he says.”

“He didn't!” the housekeeper gasped.

“That's what he says to me, Lenihan, word for word.”

“What do you suppose it
means?”

“I don't know,” the caretaker muttered. “But I don't like it … You better make good and damn sure Mr. Humffrey calls me the minute he gets in!”

Abe Pearl began phoning the Humffrey apartment from his office in Taugus police headquarters at a little past 3
P
.
M
. He called again at 3:30, and again at 4:00.

When he phoned at 4:15 Mrs. Lenihan answered in a voice shrill with tension. “No, he
isn't
here yet, Chief Pearl. I told you I'd tell Mr. Humffrey the minute he comes in. Mercy!”

“Make sure you do, Mrs. Lenihan,” Chief Pearl growled. He hung up and said, “Well, that's it. Let's hope it works.”

“It'll work, Abe,” Richard Queen said confidently.

It was almost 6
P
.
M
. when Abe Pearl put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “Here he is!”

Richard Queen hurried into the anteroom. The police operator handed him the earphones and he slipped them on and waved a go-ahead through the open doorway.

Abe Pearl removed his hand and said grimly, “Okay, Phil. Put Humffrey on.”

Alton Humffrey's voice rasped in the earpiece. “Chief Pearl!”

The chief said coldly, “So you finally got my messages, Mr. Humffrey.”

“I've only just got in. May I ask what in the name of common sense has been going on today? My housekeeper is in tears, Stallings keeps babbling some nonsense about a police raid on my Nair Island property——”

“Oh, you've talked to Stallings.”

“Certainly I've talked to Stallings! He's been calling all day, too. Is he out of his mind, Chief, or are you?”

“I'd rather not discuss it over the phone.”

“Really? By what right do you invade my privacy, ransack my house, trample my flowers, put dredgers to work off my beach? By what right, Chief Pearl?” The millionaire's twang vibrated with anger.

“By the right of any police officer who's got the jurisdiction to search for evidence in a murder case.”


Murder
case? You mean the baby? Good heavens, are you people singing that tune again? Don't you remember, Mr. Pearl? That case is closed. You closed it yourself.”

“An unsolved murder case is never closed.”

“It wasn't an unsolved murder case! It was an accident.”

“It was a murder case, Mr. Humffrey,” Abe Pearl said. “And now we've got the evidence to prove it.”

There was a pause.

Then the millionaire said in an altogether different way, “Evidence, you say? What evidence?”

“I'd appreciate it if you came out to police headquarters in Taugus right away, Mr. Humffrey. Tonight.”

“Tonight? I'm not going anywhere, any time, until I have more information! What evidence?”

The chief glanced over into the anteroom. Richard Queen nodded.

“Well, you might say,” Abe Pearl said into the phone, “you might say it's something we should never have stopped looking for in the first place.”

There was another pause.

“I see,” Humffrey said. “You wouldn't be referring, by any chance, to that pillowslip the Sherwood woman—that nurse—kept babbling about?”

The police chief glanced over at Richard Queen again. The old man hesitated this time. But then, grimly, he repeated the nod.

“That's right,” Abe Pearl said.

“You've found it?” The bitterness in Humffrey's voice was startling.

“I can't say any more over the phone. Will you come out here so we can have a talk about this, Mr. Humffrey? Voluntarily? Or——?” He deliberately left Humffrey dangling.

The wire was quiet.

“Very well,” the millionaire said slowly. “I'll be out in an hour.”

The instant the connection was broken, Richard Queen snatched the earphones from his head and ran into Abe Pearl's office.

“Convinced now?” he cried. “You heard the way he asked if you'd found it! He'd never have said it that way if he knew the pillowslip was gone beyond recall. He
accepted
the possibility that the slip could be produced! Look, let's get that tape recorder hooked up. Better be sure you plant the bug where he won't spot it … I tell you, Abe, we've got him!”

“Chief Pearl,” Alton Humffrey said.

“Who wants him?” The desk man kept writing.

“Alton K. Humffrey.”

The officer looked up.

“Humffrey?” he said in a hard voice. He rose. “Have a seat.”

“I'll stand,” Humffrey said.

“That's up to you.” The uniformed man disappeared in a hall beyond the water cooler.

The millionaire looked around the room. He was very pale. Several patrolmen and two detectives were lounging in silence, staring at him. Humffrey's pallor deepened. He looked away, fingering his collar.

The burly figure of Chief Pearl appeared from the hall.

“I made good time, you see, Chief,” Alton Humffrey said. He sounded nervously friendly.

The chief said, “Reynolds, better fill in at the desk. Harris has to take stenographic notes. No calls of any kind. I don't care if there's a riot.”

“Yes, sir.” One of the patrolmen went behind the desk and sat down.

“This way, Mr. Humffrey.” Abe Pearl stepped back.

Alton Humffrey moved toward him slowly. The millionaire seemed puzzled as well as nervous now.

The two detectives got up and sauntered across the room after him. Humffrey glanced over his shoulder at them, looked ahead quickly.

“That door at the end of the hall,” Chief Pearl said.

Humffrey walked up the hall, the chief close on his heels. The two detectives followed.

At the door Humffrey hesitated.

“Go in and have a seat, Mr. Humffrey. I'll be there in a minute.”

Abe Pearl turned his back and began to whisper to his two detectives.

Humffrey stepped into the chief's office uncertainly. The man who had been on desk duty in the outer room was at one of the windows operating a pencil sharpener. On a chair beside the chief's big swivel chair lay a stenographic notebook. The officer glanced at Humffrey, went to the smaller chair, picked up the notebook, flipped it open, and sat down, waiting.

There was only one other chair in the office. It was straightbacked and uncomfortable-looking. The millionaire hesitated again. Then he sank into it.

Chief Pearl came in alone. He went around his desk and seated himself. Humffrey stole a glance at the door. The shadows of the two detectives were silhouetted on the frosted glass.

“This is all very formidable, Mr. Pearl,” Humffrey said with a smile. “Anyone would think you were preparing to arrest me.”

The swivel chair squealed as the Taugus chief leaned back, scowling.

“Perhaps I should have brought my attorney,” Humffrey went on in a jocular way.

“There's nothing your attorney can do for you tonight,” Chief Pearl said. “Tonight you're going to be shown something, and I expect you to make a statement. After that you can call ten attorneys for all I care.”

“Shown something?” the millionaire said. “That would be the pillowslip, Mr. Pearl?”

The big man got up and went over to the door of the anteroom. He opened it and said, “All right, Dick.”

Humffrey half-rose.

Richard Queen came in with the glass-protected pillowslip. It was wrapped in brown paper.

“Queen,” Humffrey said. He was staring from the old man to the paper-covered object.

“You, too, Miss Sherwood,” Abe Pearl grunted.

Jessie walked in.

The millionaire got to his feet.

“I might have known,” Humffrey said slowly. “I might have known.”

“It's your show, Dick. Take over.” The chief glanced at the uniformed man with the notebook. “Start taking notes, Harris.”

The sharpened pencil poised.

“If you don't mind, Abe, I'll set this down on your desk.” The Inspector laid the package on the desk. He loosened the wrappings, but did not remove them. Humffrey's eyes were on the brown paper. The old man straightened up and faced the millionaire. “This is quite an exhibit, Mr. Humffrey. No wonder you didn't want us to find it.”

Humffrey was all gathered in now, almost crouching. He could not seem to tear his glance from the brown paper.

“It's a whole case by itself,” Richard Queen went on. “It not only knocks that inquest jury's verdict of accidental death into the next county, it proves that Michael Stiles Humffrey was deliberately murdered, as Miss Sherwood insisted from the beginning. But it does even more than that, Mr. Humffrey. It not only proves the baby was murdered, it shows who murdered him.”

He whirled and whipped the paper off the glass.

“Miss Sherwood,” he said swiftly, “for the record I want you to identify this pillowslip. Is this the pillowslip you saw lying over Michael Stiles Humffrey's face and torso on the night of August 4th, when you found the baby dead of suffocation?”

Jessie stepped up to the desk.

“It is,” she said in a stiff voice, and stepped back.

Humffrey quivered. His pallor was yellowish now. He moved toward Abe Pearl's desk in a jerky way, slowly, and stared down at the pillowslip under the glass.

“You never thought we'd find it, did you?” Inspector Queen said softly. “There's the dirty handprint—the dirty print of a right hand, just as Miss Sherwood said. But it's not just the dirty print of a right hand, Mr. Humffrey, as you can see. It's the dirty print of a right hand that has the tip of the little finger missing to the first joint!”

Abe Pearl reached over suddenly and seized the millionaire's right hand in his big paw. He uncurled the little finger as if it were a child's, exposing its deformity.

“You murdering louse,” Abe Pearl said. “A man who'd kill a two-month old baby, a kid he'd given his own name to, for God's sake! … You won't bull or buy your way out of this one, Humffrey. You're through. With this pillowslip as evidence, you haven't got a chance. The best thing you can do is sit down in that chair and start talking. I want a full confession, and I want it now.”

He flung the hand from him contemptuously and pointed to the straightbacked chair. Then he turned away.

“Congratulations, Chief, on a superb performance.”

Abe Pearl swung about. Alton Humffrey was smiling. There was nothing uncertain in his smile. It was a smile without humor, angry and cruel.

“What did you say?” Abe Pearl said.

“I should have warned you about Queen, Mr. Pearl. Apparently his lunacy is contagious.” He began to stroll about the police chief's office, glancing here and there with fastidious distaste, as if he were slumming. He ignored Richard Queen and Jessie Sherwood utterly. “Beautifully staged, I'll grant you that. The meaningless raid on my property. The repetitious phone calls. The menacing summons. The policemen sitting about, waiting to pounce on the big bad wolf and cart him off to the pound. And finally—” the millionaire's glance shriveled Richard Queen and Jessie Sherwood, shattered the glass-protected pillowslip—“finally, these two mountebanks, and the production of this work of art. Who manufactured it, Chief, you or Queen? I suppose it was you, Queen, and your West 87th Street Irregulars. It has the metropolitan touch. Unfortunately, you slipped. The moment I glanced at this I knew it was a fake. But you couldn't have known that, could you? And so it's all gone to waste. All this loving labor, the stage designing, the suspense, the superb acting, the extras in the wings …”

Alton K. Humffrey suddenly strode over to the hall door and yanked it open.

The two detectives looked around, startled.

Humffrey laughed.

“Do we haul him in now, Chief?” one of the detectives asked.

“Oh, get out of my way, you fool,” Alton Humffrey snapped; and he walked out.

“I don't understand it,” Inspector Queen said. “I don't, I don't.”

Abe Pearl said nothing. Patrolman Harris was gone; the three were alone in the office.

“I never should have involved you in this, Abe. Or you, Jessie.”

“Please, Richard.”

“Up to a certain point he was our fish,” the old man muttered to the pillowslip on the desk. “He was hooked. Right through the gills. Then he takes one look at the slip and he knows it's a frameup. What did we do wrong? Could it be the pillowslip itself, Jessie? The wrong material, wrong lace, wrong size or something?”

“It can't have been that, Richard. This is an exact duplicate of the one that disappeared. I'd seen the slip many times, told Mrs. Humffrey how lovely I thought it was.”

“Then it's what we did with it. The position of the print?”

“To the best of my recollection, it was just about where I told Mr. Kuntzman to put it.”

“Maybe it's what we
didn't
do with it,” he said suddenly. “After all, Jessie, you did see it in a dim light for only a couple of seconds. Suppose there was some other mark on it, a mark you missed? Maybe a dirt streak, a smudge, a tear. Something you just didn't notice.”

“I suppose that's it,” Jessie said lifelessly. “You see how misguided you were to put any confidence in me. Look what I've got you into.”

“Let's not talk about who got whom into what.” Richard Queen grimaced. “Here's Abe, ready to strangle me——”

“You didn't hold any gun to my head, Dick,” Abe Pearl said heavily. “I'm just trying to figure out what gives now. Think he's going to make an issue of this?”

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
3.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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