The Day After the Funeral
When Paul went down to breakfast, the day after the funeral, he was relieved to notice that some of the tense unreality of the atmosphere was gone. He could hear Marilyn and Jennifer at breakfast, while the cook was making noises in the kitchen.
"Sorry I'm so late," he apologized, as he entered the cheerful dining room.
Jennifer looked up at him, her gray eyes still faintly circled with dark rings.
"It's quite all right," she said. "You could have slept longer if you wished. Coffee?"
"Thanks," he replied, sliding into a chair opposite Marilyn.
He was still pondering about Jennifer, Ernie's wife. She was about thirty and, while she was not so lushly beautiful as Marilyn, she had a charm that made his heart beat faster. Her low voice … the effortless way she moved … the glint in her eyes that suggested hidden fires. … He wondered, cynically, if bluff, hearty Ernie's appeal had been the only reason he had won this prize or whether his adequate bank roll had anything to do with it.
He noticed that Marilyn looked even more weary than Jennifer. Her eyes were swollen and there were muddy streaks under them. Surely Ernie's death could not have affected Jennifer's sister more than it did Jennifer. Or could it?
Further speculations were interrupted by a long peal from the doorbell. Jennifer went to answer it. In a few minutes she returned, her face pale and drawn.
"Someone to see you, Paul."
"Me?" he stared, rising from his chair. "Who on earth knows me here?"
"Please go," said Jennifer. "It's important."
He went to the door to find a young policeman standing there.
"You Paul Fabian?" he asked.
"Why, yes. But what —?"
"Will you come with me, please?"
"What for?" demanded Paul. "Is anything wrong?"
"We want you to identify someone," the officer said.
Not understanding in the least, Paul went to get his overcoat. He looked in the hall closet but he could only find several of Ernie's. To avoid delay, he took one although it was several sizes too large for him.
The policeman looked at him curiously as he appeared in the baggy coat but said nothing. Paul climbed in the car and they drove in silence to the small office that was the local police station.
Inside were two other officers and a man, behind a large desk, who was wearing a quantity of gold braid that led Paul to assume he was the Chief of Police.
"Howdy, Mr. Fabian." The gold-braided man rose and shook his hand. "I'ni Chief Walker. I'd like to say here and now I was sorry to hear about Ernie's sudden death. He was a real nice feller and everybody liked him."
"Thank you, Mr. Walker," said Paul. "But would you mind explaining what this is all about?"
"Is this yours?" asked Walker, taking a coat from one of the men who had just returned from an inner room.
Paul stared. He picked it up and looked at the contents of the pockets and saw that without question it was his overcoat.
"How on earth did it get here?" he demanded.
"Just what we'd like to know. You see, Mr. Fabian, this coat was found in the woods about three miles from Ernie's house. It was used to cover up the body of a dead tramp."
Paul sat down weakly in a chair. It was fantastic! He had worn that coat at Ernie's funeral yesterday. He was sure he had put it in the clothes closet on his return and hadn't touched it since. He told this to Walker, who shook his head and pursed his lips doubtfully.
"S'pose you take a look at the body," he suggested. "Could be you know him."
"It's not very likely. I haven't even been in town in five years and people change a lot in that time." He was not anxious to look at any dead bodies.
"I think you better anyhow," insisted Walker.
He led him into the back room where a body was stretched out on a table. He lifted a comer of the sheet that covered it and Paul looked.
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Body of a Little Old Man
The body was that of a little old man, emaciated and sad looking. Little bits of orange colored stuff were in his beard, as if he had been spattered with something. To the best of his knowledge Paul had never seen him before.
"Sorry, Chief," he said, turning away from the pathetic little figure. "I can't help you. I don't know who he is or how he happened to be covered with my overcoat, unless he stole it."
As they walked back to the outer room, the chief seemed to have something on his mind. Turning to Paul he said, "Let's go into my private office. I want to talk to you."
Paul followed him into a small room that was evidently more of a resting place than a private office. The furniture was upholstered and comfortable and, after he closed the door, Walker went to a closet and pulled out a bottle of scotch.
"Ernie was dead when you got home, wasn't he?" he remarked as he poured out a short drink.
"Yes," replied Paul, refusing the liquor with a gesture. "He was dead before the doctor got there. He died just before dinner and the birthday party they had planned for him."
"What'd the doc say about it?" Walker gulped the drink down and returned the bottle to its cubby hole.
"He said he'd warned Ernie about his heart, but Ernie just laughed at him and ate, drank and smoked as he pleased. That was like Ernie. The doctor didn't seem too surprised at the way Ernie died."
"How'd you happen to be on hand? You haven't been around here for a long time." Walker was watching him, and Paul felt that the questions weren't entirely aimless.
"He wrote and asked me to come. It was his fiftieth birthday. He'd gotten married since I last saw him, and I guess he wanted me to meet his wife. After all, I was his only brother and he'd looked after me since I was a kid."
"H'm — yeah." Walker seemed to be thinking about something else.
"May I have my coat back?" asked Paul.
"I guess so. But I'd sure as the devil like to know how it got there."
The other lifted himself out of the comfortable chair.
"Still, could be he stole it. Sometimes a person forgets doing things. I mean you might have thought you put that coat in the closet when you had left it in the car or something."
Paul didn't point out that the day before had been bitingly cold and that it was hardly likely he'd have taken the coat off at any time. Things looked bad enough for him as it was, and if Walker chose to think Paul had mislaid the coat, it was all right with Paul. For himself, he wanted to delve further into the matter.
When he reached the house he found his sister-in-law, Jennifer, pacing the floor of the living room and Marilyn sitting on the sofa doing nothing. They turned to him as he entered.
"What happened, Paul?" asked Jennifer, her eyes wide with an emotion he couldn't interpret.
"The mystery of the missing overcoat," he said lightly.
"Wh-what do you mean?" stammered Marilyn.
"It seems that my overcoat was found covering the body of a dead tramp. Since it had a lot of my papers and things in the pockets, the police were curious as to how it had gotten in a woods about three miles from here."
"Oh!" Marilyn's hand flew to her lips while Jennifer gave a low moan and sank to the floor in a dead faint.
In the ensuing excitement, Paul had little time to think. But after the cook and Marilyn helped Jennifer upstairs, he wondered why the business of his overcoat would cause her to faint. It was curious, it was strange — but it had none of the shocking qualities that would induce a fainting spell. He began to feel that there was more mystery in the household than a disappearing overcoat.
A few minutes later Marilyn came down the stairs. Her slender hand clung to the railing as if she needed the support, and her firmly curved figure sagged with weariness.
"How is she?" asked Paul.
"She'll be all right. I guess Ernie's death has upset her more than we realized." Then, without warning, she put her golden head down on the arm of the chair and began to cry helplessly.
"Marilyn!" cried Paul in alarm. "What's wrong?"
She lifted her tear-streaked face for a moment and he saw terror in her eyes. Unable to continue, she dropped her head on her arms again.
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Quickly he got her a drink from the decanter in the dining room. His brown eyes watched her gravely while she gulped it down, but he said nothing until, at last, she pushed her hair back from her forehead wearily and looked at him.
"Want to talk?" he asked gently, sitting astride a chair opposite her.
"When Ernie wrote you to come," she asked, "did he — hint that anything was wrong?"
"Should he have?" parried Paul.
"I'm not sure. I only know something very strange happened last night."
"What was it?"
"Paul — " She stopped and caught her lower lip in her teeth. "I — I took your overcoat."
"What!" He bounced off the chair in surprise. "What happened? Tell me!"
"I thought it was Ernie's coat," she said slowly. "I didn't know the tramp was going to die."
The words were said as if she were talking in a dream.
"Tell me the whole story," he said helplessly, sitting down on the chair again.
"Well, I couldn't sleep and I went down for coffee around midnight last night. I heard a noise outside, and I saw a tramp scavenging in the garbage pail. He looked so cold and pathetic and he was eating Ernie's birthday cake — Jen had thrown it out afterwards; I guess she didn't want to be reminded. It was crazy of me, I suppose, but I called for him to come in and have some decent food and coffee."
Paul's face was concerned and amazed.
"Were you out of your mind?" he demanded. "A tramp — at that time of night?"
"He was a harmless little old man. He — he was so pathetically grateful. He seemed perfectly all right. We were talking and he said how good the coffee was. All of a sudden he got dreadfully sick. It was awful, Paul!"
She shuddered and hid her face in her hands.
"I didn't know what to do for him. He could hardly talk and it didn't seem like anytime before he was unconscious."
"Why on earth didn't you call me?" cried Paul, aghast.
"I — I was so frightened I couldn't think. I didn't know what to do. I got the car out to take him to the hospital, but by the time I got him in, he was d-dead!" She paused, her fingers drumming a nervous tattoo on the chair arm.
"What did you do then?" he demanded.
"I put one of Ernie's — I thought it was Ernie's — overcoats over him and drove out to the highway and dumped him off in the bushes. I know it was wrong, Paul, but what could I do?"
"You could have called the police."
"Don't you understand? Don't you see what it means?" she cried.
"No, I don't," he said bluntly.
"Forget it, then!" Her voice grated harshly on the words and there was a sort of scorn in her eyes.
"You're hinting at something, Marilyn. I think you'd better finish it." But even as he spoke her expression changed. She shrank back in the chair and looked at him as if she were amazed at what she had said.
"No. I shouldn't have said anything. I may be entirely wrong and I'd rather not." Her hands twisted together, fingers intertwining restlessly.
"Out with it!" he snapped angrily. "I've got a feeling that there's something queer going on and you may as well tell me. I'll find it out anyhow."
"Paul," she said, her voice trembling, "I think the tramp was poisoned."
"From what you say I would say so too. But what's that got to do with not taking him to the police?"
"He ate part of — Ernie's birthday cake out of the garbage pail." The words came as if twisted out by a corkscrew.
"You mean the cake was poisoned?" Paul stared at her. Then he recalled the details he had gotten about Ernie's death and he gave a short laugh. "You forget that Ernie died before he ate the cake. And the doctor didn't have any doubt about the cause of his death. Ernie'd had a bad heart for a long time."
"I know, Paul." Her hands kept twisting and tears dropped on her cheeks as she spoke.
"But he was messing around the kitchen while Jen was making the cake. The cook was off that day. He — he was like a kid. He liked to lick the bowls after the things were made. Jen chased him for eating the icing before she was done trimming the cake."
Paul remembered the cake that had been in the kitchen the day he arrived. A three-layer cake with a white icing that was trimmed with brilliant orange colored roses and loops with Happy
Birthday, Ernie written out on the top.
"Are you trying to tell me Jennifer deliberately poisoned Ernie? Suppose we had all eaten the cake?" He thought again of the lovely Jennifer married to fat, hearty Ernie who was twenty years her senior.
"Oh no!" Marilyn flung her hand out in protest. "I don't know what it was. I could be wrong. Oh Paul — I shouldn't have said anything! I don't know what I'm saying!"
"Look, Marilyn," he said gently, noticing her drawn face. "We're all tired and upset and bound to look at things distortedly. Run upstairs and get some rest. You'll fed better."
"Will you forget what I said?" she pleaded. "I am worn out."
She started toward the stairs, then paused.
"It's so nice to have you here, Paul."
A faint smile struggled around her lips.
He watched her go upstairs and then sat down to think. It was true that Ernie had sent for him rather unexpectedly. Had Walker been hinting at anything when he asked him why Ernie had requested Paul to return? He decided to visit Walker again. In small communities like Billington everybody was pretty aware of what everybody else did.
Walker looked up from his paper. "You back again?"
"Yeah. Have they had an autopsy on that tramp yet?" inquired Paul, pulling his pipe from his pocket.
"For the love of Mike," exclaimed Walker. "What do you think this is? An assembly line or something? It takes time for that sort of stuff. But the coroner's working on him now. Why?"
"Why did you want to know why Ernie sent for me?"
"I see you've been thinking since you got home," grinned Walker. "Suppose we hold a little game of questions and answers inside," and he nodded toward the little room they had been in before.
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Ever Heard of Bert Larkin
Walker waited until Paul was settled in his chair, and equipped with a drink. Then, leaning back in his chair, his feet comfortably stretched on an ottoman, he eyed Paul warily.
"Whose turn is it for a question?" he asked.
"You haven't told me why you asked about Ernie sending for me," suggested Paul.
"You haven't told me why you want to know about an autopsy on the tramp," reminded Walker,
"Okay. You win," and Paul told him about Marilyn's midnight excursion. Walker's face changed as the telling went on and, when Paul told him of Marilyn's suggestion about the cake, he frowned into his glass.
"That's illegal," he remarked. "Can't transport bodies around like that. I could have her arrested!"
"You won't," said Paul. "It doesn't make that much difference. Besides, I suppose it's understandable that she would get panicky about a corpse in the kitchen. That tramp could have eaten out of a dozen other garbage pails before he hit theirs. He might have eaten something baited with rat poison. It could be a million things."
"Did you ever hear of Bert Larkin?" asked Walker, making no comment on Paul's remarks.
"No. Who is he?"
"He owns a roadhouse up the road a piece. He manages, barely, to keep within the law, but he keeps a pretty rough bunch around. There's been talk about him and those two girls. Maybe that's why Ernie wanted you on hand."
"Meaning what?" Paul's eyes narrowed.
"Meaning that one of them — nobody seems very sure which — is running around with Bert. He's a pretty good-looking sort of a guy, if you don't mind 'em flashy, and he's got a nice car and a good line. Both Jennifer and Marilyn have been seen with him. Ernie had a fight with Bert about a week before he died. Ernie beat the living daylights out of him, I hear."
"I'd like to know more," said Paul. "Where can I find this character?"
"Don't go looking for trouble. But you might take a run out there this evening and give the place a look. Maybe the very fact that you aren't a cop will help you nose out something. I'll let you know the reports on the autopsy as soon as we get 'em."
Paul spent that afternoon trying to get two and two to make anything but chaos but with no result. It was five-thirty when the phone rang and he heard Walker at the other end.
"Just got that report, Paul," he said, and his voice sounded gloomy. "The tramp was a feller named Teeter Jones who worked for Bert Larkin between drunks. Coroner says he died of poisoned cake icing. I don't want to give you the details on the phone, but stop by the office in the morning. By that time you may have something on your end too."
"Thanks," said Paul. "I'll do what I can."
He was in no mood for gaiety when he went to Bert's Place that night, but he had to be sure that the pieces of the entire mess dovetailed before he passed judgment on his sister-in-law. Jennifer had made the cake for Ernie, and Teeter Jones had died from poisoned cake icing. Ernie had been chased out of the kitchen for eating the icing. Jennifer had been seen going around with Bert Larkin. Marilyn had tried to cover for her sister by taking the tramp away and hoping no one would connect the poison with Ernie's birthday cake. If it hadn't been for the accident of the overcoat, it would have succeeded. To Paul the case seemed conclusive.
Bert's Place, as the gaudy neon signs proclaimed the name, was fairly large. Sounds of laughter and music were audible in the frosty winter air. Inside it was warm and cozy looking. A huge beamed room with tables, a bar and a fairly good-sized dance floor with a three-piece band providing the music seemed to be all that was necessary for the entertainment of the people gathered there.
Paul, however, cared little for this. He wanted to find Bert Larkin and see what the score was.
A passing waiter pointed out a dark, coarse, rather good-looking man who was standing at one end of the bar with his arm around a bleached blonde. The blonde was giggling rapturously.
One of those guys, thought Paul as he walked over.
"I'd like to speak to you, Larkin," he said bluntly. "My name's Fabian. Paul Fabian."
Larkin's eyes narrowed for a brief instant; then he laughed.
"I'm listening," he said, squeezing the blonde.
"Alone, if you don't mind." Paul's voice was firm.
Larkin frowned and, shoving the blonde aside, asked shortly, "What's on your mind?"
"I want to talk to you about my brother's wife. I think you'd better stay away from her. She's out of your class."
"Suppose you consult her." Larkin gave a short laugh. "She'll be here soon. Come up to my office where we can talk."
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One Of Those Guys
Paul followed him up the small staircase that led to the upper floor. The balcony looked down on the crowd that milled around.
Larkin opened a door that bore the sign Manager in large gold letters. Paul walked in and stopped short. Seated in a chair by the large mahogany desk was Jennifer, dressed in her sombre mourning.
"Darling," cried Bert, leaning down and kissing her on the cheek. "I didn't know you were here."
She turned first red and then ghastly pale as she stared in disbelief at the two men.
"Surprised to see your brother-in-law, honey?" laughed Larkin, his even white teeth gleaming maliciously. "He says I should stay away from you, but you wouldn't want that, would you?" There was the barest accent on the last two words.
"Shut up, Larkin!" commanded Paul, his nerves as tight as fiddle strings. He turned to Jennifer, whose pale beauty reminded him of an old painting.
Perhaps, he thought bitterly, like a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.
"Jen, I'm going to ask you for the truth. If you say yes I'll leave you alone. If you say no I'll take you home with me. Are you in love with Bert Larkin?"
"Paul, I can't answer that!" Her gray eyes darkened until they seemed almost black and there was something in them he could not read. "You've got to believe me. I can't answer you!"
Larkin smiled. "She's just bashful. After all, you're making it pretty tough for her. How can she admit to her own brother-in-law that she is love with another man!"
Unreasoning fury took hold of Paul. He pulled Larkin toward him by his necktie and let go with a haymaker.
Larkin reeled back against the desk while Jennifer screamed. Not giving Larkin time to recover, Paul let him have a left hook that crunched against the jaw agonizingly. Larkin spat blood and teeth. A paper weight was on the desk and Larkin grabbed it up and hurled it at Paul. Paul ducked and it shattered against a picture on the opposite wall.
Again Paul advanced and knocked him backward on the desk. Larkin reached frantically, and his fingers found a sharp-bladed knife that he used as a letter opener. He lunged at Paul's eyes, the evil blade glittering.
Drawing back to avoid the stab, Paul tripped on the leg of a chair. Before he could get up Larkin was on top of him. They rolled and thrashed madly on the floor while Jennifer shrank back against the wall. At last Paul got Larkin by the throat, his knee on his chest, and started squeezing, not caring whether he killed him or not. In his frenzy the sound of the door opening behind him gave no warning.
"Look out!" screamed Jennifer and, as a meteor shot across a black sky, Paul faded into oblivion.
He opened his eyes and looking up he saw the stars whizzing around like insane comets. His head felt sore and his body ached all over. The chill dampness of the frost-bitten ground penetrated to his skin, and the bitter air against his face helped him back to complete consciousness.
When he tried to sit up, he realized that the sky rockets were in his head. He explored with his fingers and winced as he touched a lemon-sized knob behind his ear. There was blood on his hand when he drew it away.
He wondered how far he was from town and whether he had the necessary stamina to get there. He struggled to his feet and leaned against a tree trunk for support. As he essayed a few steps toward the highway that shone grayly in the pale winter moonlight, a car drove up and a glaring spotlight focused on him.
"What's going on here?" demanded a voice.
"I — I've got to get to…." Paul swayed, lurched forward, and for the second time, black night descended upon him.
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The Sour Note
When he next became aware of the world he was comfortably in bed with cold things on his head and the smell of antiseptic in the air.
He opened his eyes. Marilyn and Jennifer were watching him. Behind them stood Walker.
"Hello, Paul," said Jennifer softly. "How do you feel?"
He looked at her curiously. How could any woman be such a chameleon?
"I'm doing fine — I think."
He tried to grin but it hurt his jaw.
Walker stepped forward. "Feel like talking?" he asked.
"I guess I can make it if I don't use big words."
"Okay, girls, I'll give him his pills. You two run along and play. Paul and I are going to make man-talk."
He watched them leave the room. As the door closed behind them, he commented, "Good looking pair of sisters-in-law you got, boy. All mine look like old bags."
"Ernie sure picked a beauty when he married Jen," Paul said bitterly.
"Why the sour note?" asked Walker, curiously.
Paul told him what had happened at Bert Larkin's. Walker listened without comment until the story was over. Then he drew a deep breath and said:
"I can see your point of view all right. Now let me tell you about the autopsy report in language you can understand." He grinned. "It seems that Teeter Jones was full of neutral chromate of lead, which was in the cake icing on Ernie's birthday cake. There were flakes of orange icing in his beard."
"Oh my Lord!" breathed Paul. "Didn't Ernie notice it? Didn't it taste queer?"
"I wouldn't know," said Palmer dryly. "I never ate any myself. But Ernie, like a lot of people in this world, had a very poor sense of taste. Something had to be awful powerful tor him to notice it. Chromate of lead smells like the devil in its original state, hut when it's mixed with sugar and the stuff they put in icing it hardly smells at all."
"What is it?" asked Paul.
"It's ordinary chrome yellow that artists and painters use in mixing paints. Ernie had a lot of that stuff in the basement. He was always set on doing his own painting in the house."
"You mean the orange-colored decorations were loaded with poison?"
"Right. Now, I'm positive who the guilty party is, and you seem to be pretty certain about it yourself. But we've got to have definite proof that Ernie was poisoned."
"Wouldn't an order for disinterment and an autopsy prove it?" asked Paul.
"According to the coroner it would be a risk. Very often poison like that has little or nothing to show in an autopsy. It all depends on the person. That's the trouble with poison. You never know what's liable to happen."
"Can't you arrest the person — " he didn't like to directly refer to Jennifer — "on the strength of Teeter's death from poison?"
"Not unless we can prove that the person gave it to him 'with homicidal intent' as the law says. The way it looks, he just ate the cake by accident. And that's no crime," Walker said glumly.
"But nobody makes cake icing out of a deadly poison for an innocent reason!" cried Paul.
"Why not? People have swallowed oxalic acid and carbolic acid thinking it was epsom salts or something else harmless. Before the pure food laws plenty of cake icings were trimmed with poisonous colors. More than one person died that way."
"Well, how can you get a confession?" demanded Paul.
"I think you'll make pretty good bait," said Walker. "I can't tell you the details because you might not be enough of an actor to play the part I want you to. But I think you'll have a visitor pretty soon. Just do what you think advisable."
"You mean somebody will try to kill me?" Paul cried in a startled voice.
"Somebody already did, once. But not this time — at least I don't think so." Walker ruffled his gray hair worriedly. "At any rate I'll be in the background if the party gets rough."
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A Woman Entering His Room
Walker went out, and Paul waited alone, the tension mounting inside him. Several hours passed, and he was beginning to think that Walker had pulled a boner when suddenly he saw the door slide gently open. He began to breathe heavily as if he were sleeping, but by looking under his half-closed eyelids he could see a woman entering, the moonlight shining on her gown. As she crossed the swatch of light he saw it was not Jennifer but Marilyn.
In relief he sat up.
"Hello. What are you doing creeping around at this time of night?"
Marilyn jumped at the sound of his voice.
"Oh Paul! I'm so glad you're awake!" She came close to the bed. "I was tip-toeing so I wouldn't waken you but I do want to talk to you. "
"Sure. Let me put on the light."
He switched on the small table lamp by the bed. Her face was pale and she looked as if she had lost ten pounds in the last few days. Her hands were twisting in that familiar nervous gesture.
"Now," said Paul reassuringly, "what's on your mind?"
"I'm afraid," she whimpered. "Up to now I've been telling myself it was all a horrible mistake — that Jennifer didn't kill Ernie. But when I found out that she was with Bert Larkin and he tried to kill you, I knew I couldn't protect her any longer. She'll kill me too, now!"
Her eyes were wide and staring with fear.
"Take it easy, honey," Paul said, patting her restless hands. " Maybe it is all a mistake after all."
"Oh but it's not, Paul!" she cried vehemently. "I know it's not! I've tried to hide it from anyone but — you see — " Her voice faltered and she paused for a minute. "You see," she continued, "Jennifer is — insane. Ernie found it out. She knew he would put her away, so she killed him."
"What!" Paul was stunned.
"But she acts all right," he said lamely.
"Oh yes. She's clever — at least she thinks she is. But she's not clever enough to fool me. No one is. You see, Paul, she hates me! She's always hated me because I'm so much smarter than she is. She even tried to tell people that it was I who was — sick. But now she'll be electrocuted for murder! Won't it be wonderful?"
He stared at her. There was no doubt in his mind that she was hysterical. But it sounded worse than that. It was in her eyes, in the nervous twitching of her hands, in her delusions about Ernie and Jennifer. This, then, was what Walker had meant! He had known all along it was Marilyn and not Jennifer!
"Yes, Marilyn," he said quietly, "it would be wonderful. But suppose they don't convict her of killing Ernie? They may not be able to prove it."
He hoped his voice sounded normal and unafraid. His hands were clammy with sweat.
"I'll convict her!" she said proudly, her eyes shining brilliantly in the lamp light. "I'll tell them how Jennifer made the cake and put the icing on! Of course I won't tell that it was me that put the chrome yellow in the icing. Wasn't I smart to think of that?"
She giggled, her hands still twisting together.
"She even asked me what smelled so funny!"
"But nobody even knew Ernie was poisoned," said Paul. He felt actively sick as he watched her. That she was completely mad was unquestionable.
"That's why I made Bert send Teeter around. I fed him some of the cake I had saved and put your overcoat on him so that the police would know he'd been poisoned, and where."
"Did Bert know why you wanted Teeter?"
"Oh no, of course not. I just said I wanted him, and what I say people do! It was funny watching that little old man die from the cake. He didn't really get it out of the garbage can. I fed it to him!"
Paul drew back in disgust and pity, and he saw her face change as she watched him.
"Don't you like me, Paul?" she said softly. "Maybe I've talked too much. Perhaps I can't trust you either."
Her enormously dilated pupils made her eyes like bottomless pools. Then, to his horror, she drew a small sharp paring knife from her pocket.
He caught her hands and twisted her wrist sharply so that the blade fell to the floor with a clatter. The door opened, admitting Jennifer and Walker with two policemen at their heels … .
Some time later, after Marilyn was taken away, Jennifer, pale and worn-looking, and Walker, grave but relieved, sat down beside Paul.
"Whew!" said Walker. "I hope nothing like that ever happens to me again!"
"Didn't you know, Jennifer?" asked Paul.
"I knew she was nervous and sometimes peculiar, but it wasn't until the night I saw her dragging that poor old man out into the car that I really began to worry. When I questioned her she claimed he had died of heart failure and that she was going to drive to the police with him. Even when I found out the truth, I thought perhaps it was a natural reaction in the face of an unexpected tragedy."
"Did Ernie know?" asked Paul.
"I think he was beginning to get suspicious," interrupted Walker. "He came to my office several times and discussed criminal psychology with me and borrowed some of my books. I figured that was why he sent for you."
"I had told him that she was over-emotional and that the doctors had warned me to watch her closely for fear she would have a nervous breakdown," said Jennifer. "But I never dreamed she could have homicidal tendencies. I killed Ernie by bringing her here!"
Tears spilled from her eyes.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Jen," said Walker. "Plenty of mistakes like this happen. Even doctors can't always tell when somebody's going berserk."
"I know," she sighed. "The hardest job was to keep her away from the wrong kind of men. She was beautiful and they were naturally attracted to her. She thought I was deliberately trying to coop her up. After she got mixed up with Bert Larkin, I was desperate. Ernie tried to keep Larkin away from her — he even beat him up — but it did no good. I begged Bert several times to leave her alone but he only laughed at me."
"Then why didn't you come right out and tell me the truth in front of Bert Larkin when I gave you a chance?" Paul demanded of Jennifer.
Her face flushed scarlet.
"Marilyn had sold Bert on my guilt and the fact that she would inherit from me if I was convicted of Ernie's death. So, to collect in advance you might say, he started to blackmail me. I didn't know, then, just what was going on and I had to play along to find out. I even thought that perhaps I had really poisoned Ernie by accident. Bert put on that love scene from a distorted sense of humor, I suppose."
"Well, Walker," grinned Paul. "You'd better get a chaperon. I may be sick in bed for a long, long time and with a pretty sister-in-law to look after me, people may talk."
"There's no reason you can't get out of bed," retorted Walker. "The doctor says it's only your head that's bunged up. To a blockhead like you, that's not much."
"Okay, Walker," said Paul. "Spoil a good thing for me. I won't vote for you at the next election for that!"
"You mean you're staying here in town?" asked Jennifer, her pale cheeks coloring a trifle.
"Got any better ideas?" asked Paul.
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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