Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective
“May I use your typewriter?” he said.
His eyes were extremely clear and blue and lively. His face was agreeably irregular in feature, with a mouth that laughed a great deal, a chin that took insolence from no man, and generous width of forehead. His hair was thinning but not yet showing gray and his hands were unexpectedly fine and beautiful. “Hard on the surface,” thought Susan. “Terribly sensitive, really. Irish. What’s he doing here?”
Aloud she said: “Yes.”
“Good. Can’t write fast enough and want to get this story off tonight. I’ve been waiting for you, you know. They told me you wrote things. My name’s Byrne. James Byrne. I’m a reporter. Cover special stories. I’m taking a busman’s holiday. I’m actually on a Chicago paper and down here for a vacation. I didn’t expect a murder story to break.”
Susan opened the door upon the small living room.
“The typewriter’s there. Do you need paper? There’s a stack beside it.”
He fell upon the typewriter absorbedly, like a dog upon a bone. She watched him for a while, amazed at his speed and fluency and utter lack of hesitancy.
Presently she lighted the fire already laid in the tiny fireplace and sat there quietly, letting herself be soothed by the glow of the flames and the steady rhythm of the typewriter keys. And for the first time that day its experiences, noted and stored away in whatever place observations are stored, began to arouse and assort and arrange themselves and march in some sort of order through her conscious thoughts. But it was a dark and macabre procession, and it frightened Susan. She was relieved when Jim Byrne spoke.
“I say,” he said suddenly, over the clicking keys, “I’ve got your name Louise Dare. Is that right?”
He looked at her. The clicking stopped.
“Susan. Susan Dare,” he repeated thoughtfully. “I say, you can’t be the Susan Dare that writes murder stories!”
“Yes,” said Susan guardedly, “I can be that Susan Dare.”
There was an expression of definite incredulity in his face. “But you—”
“If you say,” observed Susan tensely, “that I don’t look as if I wrote murder stories, you can’t use my typewriter for your story.”
“I suppose you are all tangled up in this mess,” he said speculatively.
“Yes,” said Susan, sober again. “And no,” she added, looking at the fire.
“Don’t commit yourself,” said Jim Byrne dryly. “Don’t say anything reckless.”
“But I mean just that,” said Susan. “I’m a guest here. A friend of Christabel Frame’s. I didn’t murder Joe Bromfel. And I don’t care at all about the rest of the people here except that I wish I’d never seen them.”
“But you do,” said the reporter gently, “care a lot about Christabel Frame?”
“Yes,” said Susan gravely.
“I’ve got all the dope, you know,” said the reporter softly. “It wasn’t hard to get. Everybody around here knows about the Frames. The thing I can’t understand is why she shot Joe. It ought to have been Michela.”
—” Susan’s fingers were digging into the wicker arms of her chair, and her eyes strove frantically to plumb the clear blue eyes above the typewriter.
“I say, it ought to have been Michela. She’s the girl who’s making the trouble.”
“But it wasn’t—it couldn’t—Christabel wouldn’t—”
“Oh, yes, she could,” said the reporter rather wearily. “All sorts of people could do the strangest things. Christabel could murder. But I can’t see why she’d murder Joe and let Michela go scot-free.”
“Michela,” said Susan in a low voice, “would have a motive.”
“Yes, she’s got a motive. Get rid of a husband. But so had Randy Frame. Same one. And he’s what the people around here call a Red Frame—impulsive, reckless, bred to a tradition of—violence.”
“But Randy was asleep—upstairs—”
He interrupted her.
“Oh, yes, I know all that. And you were approaching the house from the terrace, and Tryon Welles had gone down after the mail, and Miss Christabel was writing letters upstairs, and Michela was walking in the pine woods. Not a damn alibi among you. The way the house and grounds are laid out, neither you nor Tryon Welles nor Michela would be visible to each other. And anyone could have escaped readily from the window and turned up innocently a moment later from the hall. I know all that. Who was behind the curtains?”
“A tramp—” attempted Susan in a small voice. “A burglar—”
“Burglar nothing,” said Jim Byrne with scorn. “The dogs would have had hysterics. It was one of you.
“I don’t know,” said Susan. “
I don’t know
!” Her voice was uneven, and she knew it and tried to steady it and clutched the chair arms tighter. Jim Byrne knew it, too, and was suddenly alarmed.
“Oh, look here, now,” he cried. “Don’t look like that. Don’t cry. Don’t—”
“I am not crying,” said Susan. “But it wasn’t Christabel.”
“You mean,” said the reporter kindly, “that you don’t want it to be Christabel. Well—” He glanced at his watch, said, “Golly,” and flung his papers together and rose. “There’s something I’ll do. Not for you exactly—just for—oh, because. I’ll let part of my story wait until tomorrow if you want the chance to try to prove your Christabel didn’t murder him.”
Susan was frowning perplexedly.
“You don’t understand me,” said the reporter cheerfully. “It’s this. You write murder mysteries, and I’ve read one or two of them. They are not bad,” he interpolated hastily, watching Susan. “Now, here’s your chance to try a real murder mystery.”
But I don’t want——
” began Susan.
He checked her imperatively.
“You do want to,” he said. “In fact, you’ve got to. You see—your Christabel is in a spot. You know that ring she wears—”
“When did you see it?”
“Oh, does it matter?” he cried impatiently. “Reporters see everything. The point is the ring.”
“But it’s an amethyst,” said Susan defensively.
“Yes,” he agreed grimly. “It’s an amethyst. And Mars saw a red stone. He saw it, it has developed, on the right hand. And the hand holding the revolver. And Christabel wears her ring on her right hand.”
“But,” repeated Susan. “It
“M-m,” said the reporter. “It’s an amethyst. And a little while ago I said to Mars: ‘What’s the name of that flowering vine over there?’ And he said: ‘That red flower, suh? That’s wisteria.’ ”
He paused. Susan felt exactly as if something had clutched her heart and squeezed it.
“The flowers were purple, of course,” said the reporter softly. “The color of a dark amethyst.”
“But he would have recognized Christabel’s ring,” said Susan after a moment.
“Maybe,” said the reporter. “And maybe he wishes he’d never said a word about the red ring. He was scared when he first mentioned it, probably; hadn’t had a chance to think it over.”
“But Mars—Mars would confess to murdering rather than—”
“No,” said Jim Byrne soberly. “He wouldn’t. That theory sounds all right. But it doesn’t happen that way. People don’t murder or confess to having murdered for somebody else. When it is a deliberate, planned murder and not a crazy drunken brawl, when anything can happen, there’s a motive. And it’s a strong and urgent and deeply personal and selfish motive and don’t you forget it. I’ve got to hurry. Now then, shall I send in my story about the wisteria—”
“Don’t,” said Susan choking. “Oh, don’t. Not yet.”
He picked up his hat. “Thanks for the typewriter. Get your wits together and go to work. After all, you ought to know something of murders. I’ll be seeing you.”
The door closed, and the flames crackled. After a long time Susan moved to the writing table and drew a sheet of yellow manuscript paper toward her, and a pencil, and wrote: Characters; possible motives; clues; queries.
It was strange, she thought, not how different real life was to its written imitation, but how like. How terribly like!
She was still bent over the yellow paper when a peremptory knock at the door sent her pencil jabbing furiously on the paper and her heart into her throat. It proved to be, however, only Michela Bromfel, and she wanted help.
“It’s my knees,” said Michela irritably. “Christabel’s asleep or something, and the help in the kitchen are scared of their shadows.” She paused to dig savagely at first one knee and then the other. “Have you got anything to put on my legs? I’m nearly going crazy. It’s not mosquito bites. I don’t know what it is. Look!”
She sat down, pulled back her white skirt and rolled down her thin stockings, disclosing just above each knee a scarlet blotchy rim around her fat white legs.
Susan looked and had to resist a wild desire to giggle. “It’s n-nothing,” she said, quivering. “That is, it’s only jiggers—here, I’ll get you something. Alcohol.”
“Jiggers,” said Michela blankly. “What’s that?”
Susan went into the bathroom. “Little bugs,” she called. Where was the alcohol? “They are thick in the pine woods. It’ll be all right by morning.” Here it was. She took the bottle in her hand and turned again through the bedroom into the tiny living room.
At the door she stopped abruptly. Michela was standing at the writing table. She looked up, saw Susan, and her flat dark eyes flickered.
“Oh,” said Michela. “Writing a story?”
“No,” said Susan. “It’s not a story. Here’s the alcohol.”
Under Susan’s straight look Michela had the grace to depart rather hastily, yanking up her stockings and twisting them hurriedly, and clutching at the bottle of alcohol. Her red bracelets clanked, and her scarlet fingernails looked as if they’d been dipped in blood. Of the few people who might have killed Joe Bromfel, Susan reflected coolly, she would prefer it to be Michela.
It was just then that a curious vagrant memory began to tease Susan. Rather it was not so much a memory as a memory
a memory—something that sometime she had known and now could not remember. It was tantalizing. It was maddeningly elusive. It floated teasingly on the very edge of her consciousness.
Deliberately, at last, Susan pushed it away and went back to work. Christabel and the amethyst. Christabel and the wisteria. Christabel.
It was dark and still drizzly when Susan took her way down toward the big house.
At the laurel hedge she met Tryon Welles.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “Where’ve you been?”
“At the cottage,” said Susan. “There was nothing I could do. How’s Christabel?”
“Liz says she is still asleep—thank heaven for that. God, what a day! You oughtn’t to be prowling around alone at this time of night. I’ll walk to the house with you.”
“Have the sheriff and other men gone?”
“For the time being. They’ll be back, I suppose.”
“Do they know any more about—who killed him?”
“I don’t know. You can’t tell much. I don’t know of any evidence they have unearthed. They asked me to stay on.” He took a quick puff or two of his cigarette and then said irritably: “It puts me in a bad place. It’s a business deal where time matters. I’m a broker—I ought to be going back to New York tonight—” He broke off abruptly and said: “Oh, Randy—” as young Randy’s pale, thin face above a shining mackintosh emerged from the dusk—“let’s just escort Miss Susan to the steps.”
“Is she afraid of the famous tramp?” asked Randy and laughed unpleasantly. He’d been drinking, thought Susan, with a flicker of anxiety. Sober, Randy was incalculable enough; drinking, he might be dangerous. Could she do anything with him? No, better leave it to Tryon Welles. “The tramp,” Randy was repeating loudly. “Don’t be afraid of a tramp. It wasn’t any tramp killed Joe. And everybody knows it. You’re safe enough, Susan, unless you’ve got some evidence. Have you got any evidence, Susan?”
He took her elbow and joggled it urgently.
“She’s the quiet kind, Tryon, that sees everything and says nothing. Bet she’s got evidence enough to hang us all. Evidence. That’s what we need. Evidence.”
“Randy, you’re drunk,” said Susan crisply. She shook off his clutch upon her arm and then, looking at his thin face, which was so white and tight-drawn in the dusk, was suddenly sorry for him. “Go on and take your walk,” she said more kindly. “Things will be all right.”
“Things will never be the same again,” said Randy. “Never the same—do you know why, Susan?” He’s very drunk, thought Susan; worse than I thought. “It’s because Michela shot him. Yes, sir.”
“Randy, shut up!”
“Don’t bother me, Tryon, I know what I’m saying. And Michela,” asserted Randy with simplicity, “makes me sick.”
“Come on, Randy.” This time Tryon Welles took Randy’s arm. “I’ll take care of him, Miss Susan.”
The house was deserted and seemed cold. Christabel was still asleep, Michela nowhere to be seen, and Susan finally told Mars to send her dinner on a tray to the cottage and returned quietly like a small brown wraith through the moist twilight.
But she was an oddly frightened wraith.
She was alone on the silent terrace, she was alone on the dark path—strange that she felt as if someone else was there, too. Was the bare fact of murder like a presence hovering, beating dark wings, waiting to sweep downward again?
“Nonsense,” said Susan aloud. “Nonsense—” and ran the rest of the way.
She was not, however, to be alone in the cottage, for Michela sat there, composedly awaiting her.
“Do you mind,” said Michela, “if I spend the night here? There’s two beds in there. You see—” she hesitated, her flat dark eyes were furtive—“I’m—afraid.”
“Of what?” said Susan, after a moment. “Of whom?”
“I don’t know who,” said Michela, “or what.”
After a long, singularly still moment Susan forced herself to say evenly:
“Stay if you are nervous. It’s safe here.” Was it? Susan continued hurriedly: “Mars will send up dinner.”
Michela’s thick white hand made an impatient movement.
“Call it nerves—although I’ve not a nerve in my body. But when Mars comes with dinner—just be sure it
Mars before you open the door, will you? Although as to that—
don’t know. But I brought my revolver—loaded.” She reached into her pocket, and Susan sat upright, abruptly. Susan, whose knowledge of revolvers had such a wide and peculiar range that any policeman, learning of it, would arrest her on suspicion alone, was nevertheless somewhat uneasy in their immediate vicinity.