Inspector Queen’s Own Case (4 page)

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
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“I understand.” The Humffrey voice sounded remote.

“Well … so long, Uncle Alton.”

“Good-by, Ronald.”

“I'll be seeing you and Aunt Sarah soon, I hope.”

There was no reply.

Young Frost stumbled down the stairs. Shortly after, Jessie heard his Jaguar roar away.

So the day was intolerable, and she sank into bed thankfully that night, punched her pillow, murmured her nightly prayer, and sought sleep.

At two in the morning she was still seeking.

Nair Island had long ago settled down to silence and to darkness. The rustle of surf that soothed her every night was the only sound she could hear, except for an occasional late guest's car leaving the Island; but tonight its rhythm seemed to clash with her pulse rate. Everyone in the house was asleep; the two rooms above the garage, where Stallings and Cullum had their quarters, had been dark for hours. Her bedroom was not even hot; a cool breeze had swept in from sea at eleven, and she had had to get up for a quilt.

Then why couldn't she sleep?

It was a nuisance, because usually she fell asleep at will. She had always had the gift of instant relaxation. It was one of her assets as a nurse.

It certainly wasn't the baby. Jessie had been a little concerned about his behavior during the day, but with bedtime he had become his healthy little self again, and he had finished his bottle, bubbled mightily, and fallen asleep like an angel. When she had checked him before turning in, his tiny face was serene and he was breathing with such untroubled lightness that she had actually stooped over his crib. Nor was it an imminent feeding that was keeping her wakeful; little Michael had broken himself of his 2
A.M.
bottle ten days before, and he had slept peacefully through every night since.

It was the whole disagreeable day, Jessie decided—the fireworks, the general confusion, Mrs. Humffrey's flapping about, the tension in the household climaxed by the row between uncle and nephew. And perhaps—she felt her cheeks tingle—perhaps it had something to do with that man Richard Queen.

Jessie had to admit that she had been acting like a moony teenager ever since their meeting on the Humffrey beach. Thinking about a man of sixty-three! Hinting to him about Thursday being her day off … The burn in her cheeks smarted. She had even gone over to the public beach in Taugus on her next day off and sat on the sand under a rented beach umbrella all afternoon, hoping against hope and feeling silly at the same time. What if he had shown up? Her figure in a bathing suit wasn't bad for her age, but she could hardly compete with those skinny brown three-quarters-naked young hussies flitting about the beach. So she had left that day relieved, angry at herself, and yet disappointed. He'd seemed so nice, so youthful-looking, and so troubled about his age and his retirement … Of course, he had stayed away. He must know plenty about women, having been a police officer all his life. Probably put her down right off as a coy old maid on the prowl for a victim.

Still, it was a pity. They could have found lots to talk about. Some of her more interesting cases, people of note she had nursed. And he must have had hundreds of exciting experiences. And actually she hadn't looked half bad in her bathing suit. She had studied herself in the bathroom mirror very critically before making up her mind to go that day. At least she had some flesh on her bones. And her skin was really remarkably unlined for a woman of forty-nine. How old was Marlene Dietrich …?

Jessie Sherwood heaved over and buried her face in the pillow.

And in the silence that followed the groan of the bed she heard a sound that drove all other thoughts from her head.

It was the sound of a window being opened in the nursery.

She lay stiffly, listening.

The nursery was at the rear of the house, a corner room with two windows. One overlooked the driveway and gardens at the side, the other faced the sea. At the baby's bedtime she had opened both windows wide, but when the breeze came up and she had had to get a quilt for herself, she had gone into the nursery to tuck an extra satin throw around the baby and shut the seaward window. The temperature had dropped so low that she had even removed the screen and pulled the driveway window most of the way down, leaving it open no more than three or four inches.

It seemed to her the sound had come from the driveway window.

There it was again.

Again!

They were short, soft, scrapy sounds, as if the window were being opened an inch or two at a time, little secretive upward nudges, with listening pauses between.

“Parents can't be too careful about their children, especially if they're rich …”

He
had said that.

“A snatch case I investigated a few years …”

A kidnaper!

With a leap Jessie Sherwood was out of bed. She grabbed her robe, flung it over her cotton nightgown, and dashed through the communicating doorway into little Michael's room.

In the faint glow of the baseboard nightlight she saw a man. He had one leg over the sill of the driveway window. The other was apparently braced against the top rung of a ladder. His head was cut off at the neck by the half-raised venetian blind. He was all flat and colorless. It was like seeing a lifesized cutout made of black paper.

Nurse Sherwood yelled and sprang to the crib. The figure in the window disappeared.

There was a great deal of confusion after that. Mr. Humffrey ran in buttoning his pajama coat over his gaunt, furry torso; Mrs. Humffrey flew by him, shrieking, to tear the baby from his nurse's arms; Mrs. Lenihan, Mrs. Charbedeau, the two maids thronged the stairway from the third floor, pulling on assorted negligees and gasping questions; and the men's quarters over the garage lit up. The baby wailed louder, Mrs. Humffrey shrieked harder, Mr. Humffrey roared demands for an explanation, and through the bedlam Jessie Sherwood tried to make herself heard. When she was finally able to communicate, and Alton Humffrey thrust his head out the window, the driveway was empty except for old Stallings and Henry Cullum, in pajamas and barefoot, looking up and asking wildly what was the matter.

A long ladder was leaning against the window.

“Search the grounds,” Alton Humffrey shouted to the two white-haired men below. “I'll phone the gatehouse.”

When he came back he was fuming. “I don't know what we pay those guards for. Either that imbecile Peterson was asleep or he's drunk. Sarah,
stop
that, please. Give Michael to Miss Sherwood. You're frightening him half to death.”

“Oh, Alton, suppose it was a
kidnaper,”
Sarah Humffrey said hysterically.

“Nonsense. It was some housebreaker, and Miss Sherwood scared him off. Here, let me have him.”

“I'll take him, Mr. Humffrey,” Jessie Sherwood said. “Mrs. Lenihan, would you get me a bottle of formula from the refrigerator? I think, darlin', we'll make an exception tonight. But first let's change this diaper …” She took the baby into the nursery bathroom and firmly shut the door.

When she came out with him, Alton Humffrey was alone in the nursery watching the bottle in the electric warmer.

“Is Michael all right?” he asked abruptly.

“He's fine, Mr. Humffrey.”

“You're sure it was a man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Nothing familiar about him?” His tone was odd.

“I really can't say,” Jessie said quietly. “I didn't see his face at all, and the rest of him was just a black silhouette against the moonlight. Mr. Humffrey, I don't think it was a housebreaker.”

“You don't?” He glanced at her sharply.

“Why should a housebreaker try to enter through an upper window? The windows aren't locked downstairs.”

Alton Humffrey did not reply. Jessie took the bottle from the warmer, sat down in the rocker, and began to feed the baby.

“Mr. Humffrey?” It was Cullum, from below.

Humffrey strode to the window. “Yes?”

“No sign of a soul,” the chauffeur said. Stallings, beside him, nodded.

“You two had better get some clothes on and stay out there for a while.” He put the nursery screen with the animal cutouts on it before the window. Jessie noticed how careful he was not to touch the window.

When he turned back his brow was all knots.

“Don't you think you'd better call the police, Mr. Humffrey?” Jessie murmured.

“Yes,” he said.

The telephone rang on the other side of the flimsy wall and the old man was instantly awake. He heard Abe Pearl's sleepy growl say, “Yes?” and then, not sleepily at all, “I'll go right over. Have Tinny and Borcher meet me there.”

When Chief Pearl let himself out of his bedroom, there was the old man in the hall in his robe, waiting.

“Dick. What are you doing up?”

“I heard the phone, Abe. Trouble?”

“Something funny over on Nair Island,” the big man grunted. “Maybe you'd like to sit in on it.”

“Nair Island,” Richard Queen said. “What kind of trouble?”

“Somebody tried to break into one of those millionaires' homes. Kid's nursery. Might be a snatch try.”

“It wouldn't be at the Humffreys', would it?”

“That's right.” Abe Pearl stared.

“Anybody hurt?”

“No, he was scared off. But how did you know, Dick?”

“I'll be with you in three minutes.”

The Humffrey house was lit up. They found one of Abe Pearl's men examining the ladder in the driveway and another in the nursery talking to Humffrey and the nurse. The screen was around the crib now, and Sarah Humffrey was in the rocker, gnawing her lips but quieted down.

The old man and Jessie Sherwood glanced at each other once, then looked away. He remained in the background, listening, looking around. Her color was high, and she drew her robe more closely about her. It would have to be the
cotton
nightgown tonight! she thought. Why didn't I wash out the orlon?

When they had repeated their stories, Chief Pearl went to the window.

“Is that your ladder, Mr. Humffrey?”

“Yes.”

“Where is it usually kept?”

“In the tool shed where Stallings, my gardener, keeps his equipment.”

“Take a look, Borcher.”

The detective went out.

Abe Pearl turned to Jessie. “This man,” he said. “Would you know him if you saw him again, Miss Sherwood?”

“I doubt it.”

“He didn't say anything? Make any sound?”

“I didn't hear anything but the window being slid up little by little. When I ran in he disappeared.”

“Did you hear a car?”

“No. I mean, I don't recall.”

“Did you or didn't you?”

Jessie felt herself growing hot. “I tell you I don't know!”

“That's all right,” Chief Pearl said. “People get excited.” He turned his back on her, and Richard Queen blinked. He knew what his friend was thinking: Tag the nurse as a possible question mark. Of course, Abe didn't know her. He was surprised to find himself thinking of her as if he had known her for a long time. “Did you hear a car drive away, Mr. Humffrey?”

“I can't say. There was a great deal of noise here, naturally, after Miss Sherwood screamed.”

Abe Pearl nodded. “The chances are, if he came in a car, he parked on the road off your grounds. You didn't find a note of any kind, did you?”

“No.”

Sarah Humffrey whispered, “
Note?”

Her husband said sharply, “Sarah, don't you think you'd better go to bed?”

“No, Alton, no, please. I couldn't sleep now, anyway. I'm all right, dear.”

“Sure she is, Mr. Humffrey. Think you can answer a few questions, Mrs. Humffrey?” The chief's tone was deferential.

“Yes. But I can't tell you anything——”

“About your servants, I mean.”

“The
servants?”
Sarah Humffrey repeated.

“Just a matter of form, Mrs. Humffrey. You never know in cases like this. How many you got, and how long they been with you?”

“Our housekeeper, Mrs. Lenihan, has been with us since our marriage,” Sarah Humffrey said. “Mrs. Charbedeau, the cook, has worked for us almost ten years. Rose Healy and Marie Tompkins, the maids, are Boston girls who have been with us for a number of years.”

“How about those two old fellows out there?”

“Stallings, the gardener,” Alton Humffrey said, “is a local man, but we've employed him since we purchased this property. He stays on as caretaker during the winters. Henry Cullum, the chauffeur, drove for my father as a young man. I'll vouch for both of them. For that matter, for the women, too. We're very careful about our servants, Mr. Pearl.”

“How about Miss Sherwood?” Chief Pearl asked casually.

Jessie said, “I resent that!”

“Miss Sherwood has been with us only since a week or so before the baby came. However, she was highly recommended both by Dr. Holliday of Greenwich, our pediatrician, and Dr. Wicks of Taugus, who is our family physician during the summers.”

“Check her references, Mr. Humffrey?”

“Very thoroughly indeed.”

“I've been a registered nurse for twenty-three years,” Jessie Sherwood snapped, “and I've taken an awful lot in my time, but this is the limit. If I'd been in cahoots with some psychopath to kidnap this darling baby, do you think I'd have let out a yell and chased him away?”

Chief Pearl said mildly, “Just getting the picture,” and went out.

Inspector Queen said to nobody in particular, “Don't blame the chief. It's his job.”

Nurse Sherwood tossed her head.

When Abe Pearl came back he said to Humffrey, “There's dust on the ladder. We might get some prints. Miss Sherwood, I suppose you can't say whether the man you saw was wearing anything on his hands?”

“I can't say,” Jessie replied shortly.

“Well, there's nothing else we can do tonight, Mr. Humffrey. Personally, I don't think you've got anything to worry about. But if you want me to leave a man, I'll leave one.”

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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