Authors: Peter Robinson
‘Sorry, Susan, I was miles away.’
‘I asked who was going to tell him. You or me?’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Banks, with a sigh. ‘It’s no good trying to sit on it all now. But I need another pint first. My shout.’
As he stood up to go to the bar, the door opened and Jerry Singer walked in. He spotted them at once and walked over. He had that strange naive, intense look in his eyes. Banks instinctively
reached for his cigarettes.
‘They told me you were here,’ Singer said awkwardly, pointing back through the door towards the Tudor-fronted police station across the street. ‘I’m leaving for home
tomorrow and I was just wondering if you’d found anything out yet?’
The letter arrived
one sunny Thursday morning in August, along with a Visa bill and a royalty statement. Dennis Quilley carried the mail out to the deck of his Beaches
home, stopping by the kitchen on the way to pour himself a gin and tonic. He had already been writing for three hours straight and he felt he deserved a drink.
First he looked at the amount of the royalty cheque, then he put aside the Visa bill and picked up the letter carefully, as if he were a forensic expert investigating it for prints. Postmarked
Toronto and dated four days earlier, it was addressed in a small, precise hand and looked as if it had been written with a fine-nibbed calligraphic pen. But the post code was different; that had
been hurriedly scrawled in with a ballpoint. Whoever it was, Quilley thought, had probably got his name from the telephone directory and had then looked up the code in the post office just before
Pleased with his deductions, Quilley opened the letter. Written in the same neat and mannered hand as the address, it said:
Dear Mr Quilley,
Please forgive me for writing to you at home like this. I know you must be very busy, and it is inexcusable of me to intrude on your valuable time. Believe me, I would not
do so if I could think of any other way.
I have been a great fan of your work for many years now. As a collector of mysteries, too, I also have first editions of all your books. From what I have read, I know you are a clever man
and, I hope, just the man to help me with my problem.
For the past twenty years, my wife has been making my life a misery. I put up with her for the sake of the children, but now they have all gone to live their own lives. I have asked her for
a divorce, but she just laughed in my face. I have decided, finally, that the only way out is to kill her and that is why I am seeking your advice.
You may think this is insane of me, especially saying it in a letter, but it is just a measure of my desperation. I would quite understand it if you went straight to the police, and I am
sure they would find me and punish me. Believe me, I’ve thought about it. Even that would be preferable to the misery I must suffer day after day.
If you can find it in your heart to help a devoted fan in his hour of need, please meet me on the roof lounge of the Park Plaza Hotel on Wednesday, 19 August at two p.m. I have taken the
afternoon off work and will wait longer if for any reason you are delayed. Don’t worry, I will recognize you easily from your photo on the dust jacket of your books.
Yours, in hope,
The letter slipped from Quilley’s hand. He couldn’t believe what he’d just read. He was a mystery writer – he specialized in devising ingenious murders – but for
someone to assume that he did the same in real life was absurd. Could it be a practical joke?
He picked up the letter and read through it again. The man’s whining tone and clichéd style seemed sincere enough, and the more Quilley thought about it, the more certain he became
that none of his friends was sick enough to play such a joke.
Assuming that it was real, then, what should he do? His impulse was to crumple up the letter and throw it away. But should he go to the police? No. That would be a waste of time. The real police
were a terribly dull and literal-minded lot. They would probably think he was seeking publicity.
He found that he had screwed up the sheet of paper in his fist, and he was just about to toss it aside when he changed his mind. Wasn’t there another option? Go. Go and meet the man. Find
out more about him. Find out if he was genuine. Surely there would be no obligation in that? All he had to do was turn up at the Park Plaza at the appointed time and see what happened.
Quilley’s life was fine – no troublesome woman to torment him, plenty of money (mostly from American sales), a beautiful lakeside cottage near Huntsville, a modicum of fame, the
esteem of his peers – but it had been rather boring of late. Here was an opportunity for adventure of a kind. Besides, he might get a story idea out of the meeting. Why not go and see?
He finished his drink and smoothed the letter on his knee. He had to smile at that last bit. No doubt the man would recognize him from his book-jacket photo, but it was an old one and had been
retouched in the first place. His cheeks had filled out a bit since then and his thinning hair had acquired a sprinkling of grey. Still, he thought, he was a handsome man for fifty: handsome,
clever and successful.
Smiling, he picked up both letter and envelope and went back to the kitchen in search of matches. There must be no evidence.
Over the next few days Quilley hardly gave a thought to the mysterious letter. As usual in summer, he divided his time between writing in Toronto, where he found the city worked
as a stimulus, and weekends at the cottage. There he walked in the woods, chatted to locals in the lodge, swam in the clear lake and idled around getting a tan. Evenings, he would open a bottle of
Chardonnay, reread P. G. Wodehouse and listen to Bach. It was an ideal life: quiet, solitary, independent.
When Wednesday came, though, he drove downtown, parked in the multi-storey at Cumberland and Avenue Road, then walked to the Park Plaza. It was another hot day. The tourists were out in force
across Bloor Street by the Royal Ontario Museum, many of them Americans from Buffalo, Rochester or Detroit: the men in loud-checked shirts photographing everything in sight, their wives in tight
shorts looking tired and thirsty.
Quilley took the elevator up to the nineteenth floor and wandered through the bar, an olde-worlde place with deep armchairs and framed reproductions of old Colonial scenes on the walls. It was
busier than usual, and even though the windows were open, the smoke bothered him. He walked out onto the roof lounge and scanned the faces. Within moments he noticed someone looking his way. The
man paused for just a split second, perhaps to translate the dust-jacket photo into reality, then beckoned Quilley over with raised eyebrows and a twitch of the head.
The man rose to shake hands, then sat down again, glancing around to make sure nobody had paid the two of them undue attention. He was short and thin, with sandy hair and a pale grey complexion,
as if he had just come out of hospital. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a habit of rolling his tongue around in his mouth when he wasn’t talking.
‘First of all, Mr Quilley,’ the man said, raising his glass, ‘may I say how honoured I am to meet you.’ He spoke with a pronounced English accent.
Quilley inclined his head. ‘I’m flattered, Mr . . . er . . . ?’
‘Peplow, Frank Peplow.’
‘Yes . . . Mr Peplow. But I must admit I’m puzzled by your letter.’
A waiter in a burgundy jacket came over to take Quilley’s order. He asked for an Amstel.
Peplow paused until the waiter was out of earshot. ‘Puzzled?’
‘What I mean is,’ Quilley went on, struggling for the right words, ‘whether you were serious or not, whether you really do want to—’
Peplow leaned forward. Behind the lenses, his pale blue eyes looked sane enough. ‘I assure you, Mr Quilley, that I was, that I
entirely serious. That woman is ruining my life and
I can’t allow it to go on any longer.’
Speaking about her brought little spots of red to his cheeks. Quilley held his hand up. ‘All right, I believe you. I suppose you realize I should have gone to the police?’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘I could have. They might be here, watching us.’
Peplow shook his head. ‘Mr Quilley, if you won’t help, I’d even welcome prison. Don’t think I haven’t realized that I might get caught, that no murder is perfect.
All I want is a chance. It’s worth the risk.’
The waiter returned with Quilley’s drink and they both sat in silence until he had gone. Quilley was intrigued by this drab man sitting opposite him, a man who obviously didn’t even
have the imagination to dream up his own murder plot. ‘What do you want from me?’ he asked.
‘I have no right to ask anything of you, I understand that,’ Peplow said. ‘I have absolutely nothing to offer in return. I’m not rich. I have no savings. I suppose all I
want really is advice, encouragement.’
‘If I were to help,’ Quilley said, ‘if I were to help, then I’d do nothing more than offer advice. Is that clear?’
Peplow nodded. ‘Does that mean you will?’
‘If I can.’
And so Dennis Quilley found himself helping to plot the murder of a woman he’d never met with a man he didn’t even particularly like. Later, when he analysed his reasons for playing
along, he realized that that was exactly what he had been doing – playing. It had been a game, a cerebral puzzle, just like thinking up a plot for a book, and he never, at first, gave a
thought to real murder, real blood, real death.
Peplow took a handkerchief from his top pocket and wiped the thin film of sweat from his brow. ‘You don’t know how happy this makes me, Mr Quilley. At last I have a chance. My life
hasn’t amounted to much and I don’t suppose it ever will. But at least I might find some peace and quiet in my final years. I’m not a well man.’ He placed one hand solemnly
over his chest. ‘Ticker. Not fair, is it? I’ve never smoked, I hardly drink, and I’m only fifty-three. But the doctor has promised me a few years yet if I live right. All I want
is to be left alone with my books and my garden.’
‘Tell me about your wife,’ Quilley prompted.
Peplow’s expression darkened. ‘She’s a cruel and selfish woman,’ he said. ‘And she’s messy, she never does anything around the place. Too busy watching those
damn soap operas on television day and night. She cares about nothing but her own comfort, and she never overlooks an opportunity to nag me or taunt me. If I try to escape to my collection, she
mocks me and calls me dull and boring. I’m not even safe from her in my garden. I realize I have no imagination, Mr Quilley, and perhaps even less courage, but even a man like me deserves
some peace in his life, don’t you think?’
Quilley had to admit that the woman really did sound awful – worse than any he had known, and he had met some shrews in his time. He had never had much use for women, except for occasional
sex in his younger days. Even that had become sordid, and now he stayed away from them as much as possible. He found, as he listened, that he could summon up remarkable sympathy for Peplow’s
‘What do you have in mind?’ he asked.
‘I don’t really know. That’s why I wrote to you. I was hoping you might be able to help with some ideas. Your books . . . you seem to know so much.’
‘In my books,’ Quilley said, ‘the murderer always gets caught.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Peplow, ‘of course. But that’s because the genre demands it, isn’t it? I mean, your Inspector Baldry is much smarter than any real policeman.
I’m sure if you’d made him a criminal, he would always get away.’
There was no arguing with that, Quilley thought. ‘How do you want to do it?’ he asked. ‘A domestic accident? Electric shock, say? Gadget in the bathtub? She must have a hair
curler or a dryer?’
Peplow shook his head, eyes tightly closed. ‘Oh no,’ he whispered, ‘I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything like that. No more than I could bear the sight of her
‘How’s her health?’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Peplow, ‘she seems obscenely robust.’
‘How old is she?’
‘Any bad habits?’
‘Mr Quilley, my wife has nothing
bad habits. The only thing she won’t tolerate is drink, for some reason, and I don’t think she has other men – though
that’s probably because nobody will have her.’
‘Does she smoke?’
‘Like a chimney.’
Quilley shuddered. ‘How long?’
‘Ever since she was a teenager, I think. Before I met her.’
‘Does she exercise?’
‘What about her weight, her diet?’
‘Well, you might not call her fat, but you’d be generous in saying she was full-figured. She eats too much junk food. I’ve always said that. And eggs. She loves bacon and eggs
for breakfast. And she’s always stuffing herself with cream cakes and tarts.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Quilley, taking a sip of Amstel. ‘She sounds like a prime candidate for a heart attack.’
‘But it’s me who—’ Peplow stopped as comprehension dawned. ‘Yes, I see. You mean one could be
‘Quite. Do you think you could manage that?’
‘Well, I could if I didn’t have to be there to watch. But I don’t know how.’
‘I don’t know anything about poison.’
‘Never mind. Give me a few days to look into it. I’ll give you advice, remember, but that’s as far as it goes.’
Quilley smiled. ‘Good. Another beer?’
‘No, I’d better not. She’ll be able to smell this one on my breath and I’ll be in for it already. I’d better go.’
Quilley looked at his watch. Two-thirty. He could have done with another Amstel, but he didn’t want to stay there by himself. Besides, at three it would be time to meet his agent at the
Four Seasons, and there he would have the opportunity to drink as much as he wanted. To pass the time, he could browse in Book City. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘I’ll go down with
Outside on the hot, busy street, they shook hands and agreed to meet in a week’s time on the back patio of the Madison Avenue Pub. It wouldn’t do to be seen together twice in the