Inspector Queen’s Own Case (6 page)

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
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They had dinner in Belle Berman's apartment on West 11th Street. All during the meal Jessie kept glancing at her watch.

“What
is
the matter with you?” her friend demanded as she began to collect the dishes. “Anyone would think you'd left a dying patient.”

“I'm sorry, Belle, but I'm worried about the baby. Mrs. Humffrey does have a cold, and if she starts moaning and pampering herself … Besides, she's so helpless about the simplest things.”

“Heavens, Jessie,” Belle Berman exclaimed. “Is there anything more indestructible than an infant? Anyway, it will do the woman good. These rich mothers! Now you stop this foolishness—no,
I'll
wash the dishes, and you're going to sit on your fanny and talk to me. By the way, how do you keep your figure? You eat like a horse!”

Belle Berman had a few friends in after dinner, and Jessie tried hard to catch up on hospital gossip and join in the good-natured character assassination of certain doctors and nurses they all knew. But as the evening wore on she grew more and more restless. Finally, she jumped up.

“Belle, I know you're going to think I'm menopausal or something, but would you mind very much if I change our plans and I don't stay overnight after all?”

“Jessie Sherwood.”

“Well, I can't bear the thought of my precious lamb being mishandled by that woman,” Jessie said fiercely. “Or suppose she got really sick today? Those maids don't know one end of a baby from the other. If I leave now and take a cab, I can catch the 11:05 …”

She just made the train. The trip was stifling and miserable. Jessie lolled all the way in a sickish stupor, dozing.

It was a few minutes past midnight when she got off at the Taugus station and unlocked her car. Even here the night was a humid swelter, and the inside of the Dodge was like an oven. She rolled down the windows, but she did not wait for the car to cool off. She drove off at once, head throbbing.

She thought Charlie Peterson would never come out of the gatehouse. He finally appeared, yawning.

“What a night,” he said, slapping at the mosquitoes.

“Yes.”

“Hot in town, too, Miss Sherwood?”

“Beastly.”

“At least you could go to an air-cooled movie. What makes this job so tough is having to look at this damn water while you're boiling to death——”

“I have such a headache,” Jessie murmured. “Would you please let me through, Mr. Peterson?”

“Sorry!” He raised the barrier, offended.

Jessie drove up the Nair Island road, sighing. Now that she was here, it all seemed rather silly. The Humffrey house up ahead was dark. If the baby were sick or wakeful the house would be blazing with lights. Mrs. Humffrey took it for granted that her employes were delighted to share her troubles and got them all out of bed the moment anything went wrong. Well, this was one night when none of them was going to be disturbed. She'd leave the car just inside the grounds and let herself in the front door quietly and tiptoe upstairs and go to bed. The sound of the car going around the driveway to the garage might wake someone up.

Jessie turned off her ignition, locked the car, and groped toward the front of the house. She located the key in her bag by touch, let herself in, shut the door carefully, felt around until she found the newel post, and climbed the stairs, grateful for the heavy carpeting.

Then, at the door of her room, after all her caution, she dropped her purse. In the silence of the dark house it sounded like a bomb going off.

Jessie was feeling around on all fours, trying to locate the purse and keep her head from falling, too, when a whiplash voice a few feet away said, “Don't move.”

“Oh, dear,” Jessie said with an exasperated laugh. “It's only me, Mr. Humffrey. I'm sorry.”

A light flashed on her.

“Miss Sherwood.” As her eyes accommodated to the glare she saw his robed figure utterly still, a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. “I thought you were spending the night in New York.”

Jessie plucked her purse from the floor, feeling like a fool. “I changed my mind, Mr. Humffrey. I developed a headache, and the city was so hot …”

Why did he keep the gun pointing at her that way?

“Alton! What is it?”

“Oh, dear,” Jessie said again. She wished he would lower the gun.

Light flooded the master bedroom doorway. Mrs. Humffrey peered out, clutching one of her exquisite negligees at the bosom. Her face looked pinched and old with fear.

“It's Miss Sherwood, Sarah.” Only then did Alton Humffrey drop the gun into the pocket of his robe. “That was foolish of you, Miss Sherwood, stealing in this way, without warning. You might have been shot. Why didn't you phone?”

“I didn't have time. I made my mind up at the last minute.” Jessie began to feel angry. Questioning her as if she were a criminal! “I'm terribly sorry my clumsiness woke you up. Is the baby all right, Mrs. Humffrey?”

“He was last time I looked in.” Sarah Humffrey came out into the hall and switched on the lights. Her husband went back to their room without another word. “Have you been in to Michael yet?”

“No. How is your cold?”

“Oh, it's all right. Baby was cross all day, I can't imagine why. I didn't leave him for a moment. And I've been in to him twice since I put him beddy-bye. Do you suppose he could have caught my cold?”

“I'll have a look,” Jessie said wearily. “But I'm sure he's all right, Mrs. Humffrey, or this noise would have made him restless. Why don't you go back to bed?”

“I'll look with you.”

Jessie shrugged. She opened her door, turned on her bedlamp, and tossed her hat and gloves on the bureau.

“I hope I did all the right things,” Mrs. Humffrey said. “He was so fretful at 10:30, the last time I looked at him before I went to bed, that I put a big pillow between his head and the headboard. I was afraid he'd hurt himself. Their tender little skulls …”

Jessie wished her tender little skull would stop aching. She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice. “I've told you, Mrs. Humffrey, that's not a wise thing to do when they're so tiny. The bumpers give him all the protection necessary.” She hurried toward the nursery.

“But he's such an active child.” Sarah Humffrey stopped in the doorway, a handkerchief pressed hygienically over her mouth and nose.

The nursery was hot and close, although Jessie noticed in the faint glow of the nightlight that the Venetian blind on the window overlooking the driveway was drawn all the way up and the window was wide open. Also, someone had removed the window screen, and the room was full of bugs.

She could have slapped the ineffectual woman in the doorway.

She tiptoed over to the crib.

A vise closed over her heart, and squeezed. The baby had kicked his covers off. He was lying on his back, his fat little legs helter-skelter, and the pillow was over his face and torso.

It seemed to Jessie Sherwood that a million years passed between the constriction of her heart and its violent leap. In that infinite instant all she could do was stare down at the motionless little body, paralyzed.

Then she snatched the pillow away, kicked the side of the crib down, and bent over.

“Put the overhead light on,” she said hoarsely.

“What? What's the matter?” quavered Mrs. Humffrey.

“Do as I say. The light!”

Mrs. Humffrey fumbled for the switch on the wall, the other hand still over her mouth and nose.

Jessie Sherwood, R.N., went through the motions as prescribed, her fingers working swiftly, by training and habit as cool as a surgeon's—as if they were, in fact, the fingers of a surgeon, or of anyone not herself. Inside a sick something was forming, a nausea of disbelief.

Two months old. Two months.

And as she worked over the cold little limbs, trying not to see him as he was but only as he had been—in her arms, in his bath, in his pram on the beach—she knew he would never be any older.

“He's dead,” Jessie said without stopping, without looking up. “He's suffocated, I'm giving him artificial respiration but it's useless, he's been dead for some time, Mrs. Humffrey. Call your husband, call a doctor—not Dr. Holliday, Greenwich is too far away—call Dr. Wicks, and don't faint till you do, Mrs. Humffrey. Please don't faint till you call them.”

Mrs. Humffrey screamed piercingly and fainted.

With some surprise Jessie found herself a long time later wrapping another blanket around Sarah Humffrey in the master bedroom. The spirits of ammonia were on the bed shelf near the books on infant care, with the stopper out, so she knew she had done the right things automatically, or perhaps it was at Dr. Wicks's direction—she could hear his voice from the hall. Mrs. Humffrey was lying across the bed, her head hanging over the side; she was conscious, moaning, and Jessie thought it a pity that her professional training had made her bring the woman out of the blessed land of shock. In fact, Jessie thought, Sarah Humffrey would be better off dead.

Then she remembered, and the memory brought her to her senses.

Dear God, she thought.

She hauled the moaning woman to a comfortable position on the bed and walked out on her.

Now she remembered everything. Where had she been? How long was it? It would have taken some time for Dr. Wicks to dress and drive over. How long had he been here?

The doctor was in the hall talking to Alton Humffrey. The gaunt millionaire was leaning against the wall, shading his eyes as if the light hurt them.

“It's always a question, Mr. Humffrey,” Dr. Wicks was saying. “I'm afraid we don't know very much about this sort of thing. In some cases we find a widespread, diffuse infection, probably viral, that simply doesn't show up except on autopsy, and not always then. It could have been that. If you'd consent to an autopsy——”

“No,” Alton Humffrey said. “No.”

She remembered his running into the nursery at Sarah Humffrey's scream, the look on his face as he caught sight of the body in the crib, the terrible frozen look, like the
risus sardonicus
of tetanus. For fully a minute that look had held possession of him as he watched her trying to restore the function of the dead lungs, trying to coax the flaccid little rib cage into an elasticity it would never have again, trying to revive a tiny heart that had stopped beating long ago.

Then he said, “He's really dead.”

And she had said, “Phone Dr. Wicks,
please.”

And he had picked up his wife and carried her out, and a moment later Jessie had heard him phoning Dr. Wicks in a voice as frozen as his look had been.

After a while Jessie had stopped working the cold baby arms, covered the body, and gone to Mrs. Humffrey. Her husband was trying to revive her.

“I'll do it,” Jessie had said, and he had gone out with long strides, in a release of stopped-up energy, as if his need for expending himself were overwhelming. As she worked over the unconscious woman she had heard him talking to the servants in a strangely considerate tone, and there were weepy female sounds and a sudden unbelievable shout from him—the patrician who never raised his voice!—a shout of pure rage, and immediately shocked silence. After that he had merely prowled downstairs and up, in the room and out, until Dr. Wicks arrived.

Jessie went up to them and leaned against the wall, too.

“Oh, Miss Sherwood.” Dr. Wicks looked relieved. He was a fashionable little man with a sun-blotched scalp. “How is Mrs. Humffrey?”

“She's conscious, Doctor.”

“I'd better have a look at her. You're going to have to handle your wife very carefully for a while, Mr. Humffrey.”

“Yes,” Alton Humffrey said, rousing himself. “Yes.”

Dr. Wicks picked up his bag and walked quickly into the master bedroom. The gaunt man unfolded himself and followed. Jessie shuffled after, her feet dragging. A wave of weakness surged over her, and for a moment the hall rocked. But she steadied herself and went into the bedroom.

Sarah Humffrey was weeping now, her bony shoulders jerking like something at the end of a fisherman's line. Dr. Wicks was saying as if to a child, “That's all right, Mrs. Humffrey, don't mind us at all. It's nature's way of relieving tension. A good cry will make you feel better.”

“My baby,” she sobbed.

“It's terribly unfortunate, a great tragedy. But these things do happen. I've seen babies go like that in the best-regulated nurseries.”

“The pillow,” she wept. “I put the pillow there to protect him, Doctor. Oh, God, how was I to know?”

“There's no point in dwelling on it, Mrs. Humffrey, is there? What you need now is sleep.”

“I shouldn't have let Miss Sherwood go off. She offered to stay. But no, I had to pretend I knew all about taking care of him …”

“Mrs. Humffrey, if you're going to carry on like this——”

“I loved him,” the woman sobbed.

Dr. Wicks glanced at Jessie as if for professional support. But Jessie was standing there like a stone, stuck fast, wondering how to say it, wondering if it could be true, knowing it was true and loathing the knowledge.

I'm going to be sick any minute, she thought. Sick …

“I think,” Dr. Wicks said with a show of firmness, “we'll have to give you something.”

Jessie heard him with surprise. Did it show that much? But then she saw that he was still talking to Mrs. Humffrey.

“No!” the woman screamed. “No, no,
no!”

“All right, Mrs. Humffrey,” the doctor said hastily. “Just quiet down. Lie back …”

“Dr. Wicks,” her husband said.

“Yes, Mr. Humffrey.”

“I assume you're intending to report this to the County Coroner's office?” The millionaire had sheathed himself like a sword.

“Yes. A formality, of course——”

“I needn't tell you how abhorrent all this is to me. I have some influence in Hartford, Doctor. If you'll be good enough to co-operate——”

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
13.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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