Authors: Margaret Millar
Tags: #Crime Fiction
Flo and the boys had the flu last month but we are all well now. I enclose twenty dollars. Spend it, save it, tear it up, but for the love of heaven don't hand it over to that doom-spouting
who seems to have you mesmerized.
Not even by reading between the lines could Quinn detect any sign of love or affection in the letter. Charles had written it in anger, and if he intended it as a real invitation for his mother to come and share his house, it was poorly expressed. Four words would have done the trick:
We need you here.
“There's no time to read letters now,” Lassiter said sharply.
“You'd better glance at it. It's from her son, Charlie.”
“You'll probably have to phone him and break the news.”
“That will be pleasant. âHello, Charlie, your old lady's just been done in!' “ He took the letter Quinn handed him and put it in his pocket. “O.K., let's bring out the rest of the junk. I don't want to be stuck in this joint all night.”
The hockey skates belonged to Brother Light of the Infinite, the abalone shell to Brother Behold the Vision, the lamp and coffee mug to Sister Contrition. It was Brother of the Steady Heart who had cranked the phonograph, Brother Tongue of Prophets who had glued together the outrigger, and Karma who had cherished the headless doll and the velvet pillow.
Underneath the pillow Quinn found several sheets of paper filled on both sides with single-spaced typing. It had obviously been done by someone just learning to type, on a machine whose ribbon was running out of ink. There were sentences, half-sentences, numbers, letters of the alphabet in order and in reverse order, lines of semicolons and punctuation marks, and, interspersed here and there, the name Karma.
Some of the sentences were factual, others adolescent fantasy:
My name is name is Karma; which I hate.
Because of my of my great beuaty beauty they are holdÂing me prisoner in the tower in the forest. It is a sad fate for a princess.
Quin said ge he would bring me a magic presnt presant for my face but I don't think ge he will.
Today I said hell hell hell 3 times out loud.
The princess made a brade of her long hair and strangled all her enemies and got loose and re turned to the kingdom.
“What's that?” Lassiter said.
“Some of Karma's doodling on the typewriter.”
“There's no typewriter here.”
“Whoever it belonged to must have taken it along.”
It seemed a logical conclusion and the subject was dropped.
The carton labeled Brother Crown of Thorns contained no sentimental mementos of the past, only a few pieces of clothÂing: a tweed suit and a sweater, both riddled by moths; a broadcloth shirt, a pair of shoes, and s
ome woolen socks so full of holes they were barely recognizable. All of the articles had been lying undisturbed in the carton for a long time.
Quinn said suddenly, “Wait a minute.”
“What's the matter?”
“Hold one of those shirts up against your chest as if you were measuring it for size.”
Lassiter held the shirt up. “Pretty good fit.”
“What size do you take?”
“Sixteen and a half.”
“Try the suit coat on, will you?”
“Just what are you getting at, Quinn? I don't like messing around other people's clothes.” But he tried the coat on anyÂway. It was too tight around the shoulders and the sleeves were too long.
“Now the sweater, I suppose?”
“If you don't mind.”
The sweater was a fairly good fit except that once again the sleeves were too long.
“All right, Quinn.” Lassiter tossed the sweater back into the carton. “What's the pitch?”
“A real sinker,” Quinn said. “Those clothes don't belong to Brother Crown. He's a man of medium build, a little on the short side even.”
“Maybe he's lost weight since he arrived hereâ”
“His legs and arms didn't shrink.”
“âOr the carton was mislabeled. There could be a dozen explanations.”
“There could be, yes. But I want the right one.”
Quinn carried the sweater, the coat and one of the shirts over to the doorway and examined them in sunlight. Neither the sweater nor the coat bore a manufacturer's label. Inside the collar of the shirt there was a label, Arrow, 16Vz, 100% pure cotton, Peabody & Peabody, and the barely distinguishÂable remains of a laundry mark.
“Have, you got a magnifying glass, sheriff?”
“No, but I have twenty-twenty vision.”
“Try it on this laundry mark.”
“Looks like an H to begin with,” Lassiter said, blinking. “HR. Or maybe HA. That's it, HAI or HAT.”
“How about HA one?”
“You may be right. HA one. The next looks like a 3 or a 2. Then an 8.”
“HA 1389X,” Quinn said.
Lassiter sneezed, partly from annoyance, partly from the dust hanging in the air like fog. “If you knew it already, why did you ask me?”
“I wanted to be sure.”
“You think it's important?”
“That's George Haywood's laundry mark.”
“Well, I'll be damned.” Lassiter sneezed again. “Judging from the amount of moth damage and dust, I'd say these things had been in here for years. What's it add up to?”
“When Brother Crown first came to the Tower he was apparently wearing George Haywood's clothes.”
“Why? And how did he get hold of them?”
Quinn wasn't quite ready to answer the question though he was pretty sure he knew the answer. Willie King had given it to him the previous night in the courtyard motel. Of George, coming out of the anesthetic, she had said. “He was a scream. . . . He thought I was Alberta . . . and told me I was a silly old spinster who should know better. . . . He was mad at her . . . because she'd given away some of his clothes to a transient who'd come to the house. He called her a gullible, soft-hearted fool. . . . Alberta might be a fool but she's neither gullible nor soft-hearted. If there really was a transient, and if she gave him some of George's clothes, she must have had a reason besides simple generosity.”
Quinn felt a painful triumph rising inside him. The conÂnection he'd been searching for, between Alberta Haywood and the murder of Patrick O'Gorman, was gradually becomÂing clear. The transient to whom she had given George's clothes, the hitchhiker O'Gorman had picked up in his car, the writer of the confession letter to Martha O'Gorman, had all been the same man, Brother Crown of Thorns.
Questions still unanswered raced around in Quinn's mind. Where was Brother Crown now? How had he managed to persuade the entire colony to disperse in order to save him from arrest? Was it George Haywood's sudden appearance at the Tower that made Sister Blessing's death necessary? And what reason besides simple generosity had prompted Alberta Haywood to hand over her brother's clothes to a stranger? Suppose, though, that he was not a stranger, or didn't remain one very long. Suppose Alberta, on opening the door to him, had sensed in him a desperation that matched her own and had offered him money to kill O'Gorman.
Quinn had been considering for some time the idea that O'Gorman had had a connection with, or at least knowledge of, Alberta's embezzlements. It was impossible to believe O'Gorman had used his knowledge to blackmail her but he might have tried to talk to her, to reason with her:
Now see here, Miss Haywood, you really shouldn't be taking money from the bank, it's not a nice thing to do. I think you ought to stop. You're putting me in an awkward position. If I keep quiet about it, I'm condoning your crimeâ
Alberta was such a timid little creature it probably didn't occur to O'Gorman that she might be capable of hiring a man to kill him.
Yes, it all fitted together, Quinn thought. Even now, back in her jail cell, Alberta was blaming O'Gorman for her plight. Her irrational claims that he was not dead might be caused by her inability to face her guilt, a refusal to admit that she had been responsible for his death. Then where did George fit into the picture? How long had he suspected his sister of planning O'Gorman's murder? And were his regular visits to her inÂtended to get at the truth or to conceal it?
“Give me a hand with these cartons,” Lassiter said. “We'd better take them along in case any of the Brothers gets the notion of coming back for them.”
“I don't think they'll be back.”
“Nor do I. But there are always buts. Where do you supÂpose they're headed?”
“South, probably. The original colony was in the San Gabriel Mountains.”
Lassiter lit a cigarette, put out the match and broke it in two before tossing it out the door. “Now if I were the Master, which God forbid, that's the last thing I'd do, unless I wanted to be caught. Even though they've all put on ordinary clothes, twenty-five people in a truck and a station wagon are pretty likely to attract attention.”
“So what would you do?”
“Disperse. Drive to the nearest big city, L.A., and separate completely. They don't stand a chance in the mountains.”
“They don't stand much of a chance in the city, either,” Quinn said. “They have no money.”
In the back seat, lulled by the motion of the car, Mother Pureza went to sleep sucking a Life Saver. With her legs drawn up and her chin dropped on her chest, she looked like a very old foetus.
Lassiter rode in the front. When they reached the main road he turned around to frown at Quinn. “You said there was a ranch near here?”
“Yes. The turn-off's a couple of miles down the road.”
“We'll have to stop by and get some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“Only a city boy would ask that,” Lassiter said with a grunt. “The livestock has to be looked after. Cows can't milk themselves. It's a funny darn thing, the Brothers walking off and leaving behind a valuable herd like that.”
“With only a truck and a station wagon, they had no alternative.”
“I wonder if there's any possibility that they're hiding out in the hills near here and intend to come back for the cattle, perhaps during the night. Being a city boy, you wouldn't understand how much a colony like the Tower depends on its livestock. The herd looked healthy and well-tended.”
“It was,” Quinn said, remembering the intensity of Brother Light's voice as he had spoken of the cattle, the sheep, the goats. Wherever Brother Light was now, in the hills nearby, in the San Gabriel Mountains, or in the city, Quinn knew what he would be thinking of as the sun set.
The turn-off to the ranch was marked by a wooden sign, Rancho Arido, decorated with horseshoes. Half a mile up the road they were met by a man driving a jeep with a couple of collies in the back seat, barking and wagging their tails furiÂously.
At the approach of the sheriff's car the man stopped the jeep and climbed out.
“What's up, Sheriff?”
“Hello, Newhouser,” Quinn said.
Newhouser leaned over and peered through the window. “Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle, it's you again, Quinn.”
“Thought you'd be back in Reno by this time.”
“I hit a detour.”
“You know, Quinn, it's been kind of on my conscience, my leaving you on the road like I did. I'm glad you're O.K. You never can tell what'll happen.”
Quinn's sudden deep breath was like the gasp of a man drowning in a flash flood of memories. Riding the crest of the flood was Sister Blessing, smiling a greeting to him: “
WelÂcome., stranger. . . . We never turn away the poor, being poor ourselves.”
“No,” he said quietly, “you never can tell what will hapÂpen.”
At nine o'clock
Quinn was still in the sheriff's office waiting for the operator to put through a call to Charlie Featherstone on the sheriff's private phone. When the phone finally rang, Lassitter glanced first at it, then at Quinn:
“I'm no good at this kind of thing. You answer it.”
“It's not my duty.”
“You knew his mother, I didn't. Answer it.”
“All right,” Quinn said. “But I prefer speaking to him alone.”
“This is my office.”
“It's also your phone.”
“Oh, for Pete's sake,” Lassiter said and went out, slamming the door behind him.
Quinn picked up the phone. “Hello.”
“Yes. Who's this?”
“My name is Quinn. I'm calling from San Felice, California. I've been trying to reach you for some time.”
“I was out.”
“I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.”
“I'm not surprised.” Featherstone's voice had the whine of a chronic complainer. “I never get any
news from that part of the country.”
“Your mother died this afternoon.”
For a long time there was no response. Then, “I warned her, I told her she was a fool to stay there, neglecting her health, never looking after herself properly.”
“She didn't die of neglect, Mr. Featherstone. She was poisoned.”
“Good God, what are you saying? Poisoned? My mother poisoned? How? Who did it?”
“I'm not sure of the details yet.”
“If that hell-ranting maniac is responsible, I'll tear that holy carcass of his apart.”
“It was not his fault.”
“Everything's his fault.” Featherstone was shouting now, translating his grief into anger. “If it weren't for him and that line of bull he shoots, she'd have been here, leading a decent life.” “Her life was decent, Mr. Featherstone. She did what she wanted to do, serve others.”
were so full of gratitude that they poiÂsoned her? Well, it figures, from what I know of the place, it really figures. I should have suspected something funny was going on when I had a letter from her last week. I should haveâshould have acted.”
He must have broken down at this point: Quinn could hear muffled sobs and a woman's voice pleading, “Charlie, please don't take it so hard. You did everything you could to reason with her. Please, Charlie.”
After a time Quinn said, “Mr. Featherstone? Are you still there?”
“Yes. Yes, Iâ Go on.”
“Before she died, she spoke your name. I thought you'd want to know that.”
“I don't. I
want to know it.”
“She was my mother. It was my duty to look after her, and I couldn't do a thing once that madman got to her with a line that wouldn't fool a two-year-old child. Other women lose their husbands, it doesn't mean they have to stop wearing shoes.”
“About that letter she wrote youâ”
“There were two letters,” Featherstone said. “One was a short note telling me she felt well and happy and not to worry about her. The other letter was in a sealed envelope which I was to post here in Evanston as a favor to her.”
“Did she explain why?”
“Only that the letter would clear up a situation that was making someone unhappy. I thought it was just some more of her religious nonsense so I posted it. It was an air-mail letter addressed to a woman named Mrs. O'Gorman, in Chicote, California.”
“What about the handwriting?”
“It wasn't my mother's. It looked more like a kid's, third- or fourth-grade level, or perhaps it was other-handed writing.”
“Written left-handed by a right-handed person, or vice versa. Or else whoever wrote it was semiliterate.”
, Quinn thought. It must have been a chore for Brother Crown to have written the letter at all. Why had he done it? Fear of dying before receiving absolution? It hardly seemed possible. He appeared to be in excellent health, much better than any of the rest of them. If fear hadn't motivated his confession, what had? Or who had?
Quinn recalled his second visit to the Tower when he had gone to see Sister Blessing, in isolation for her sins. He had told her about Martha O'Gorman and her uncertainty over her husÂband's death:
“She deserves a break. Give it to her if you can, Sister. You're a generous woman.”
He had thought Sister BlessÂing wasn't listening to him, but she must have heard, must have considered Martha O'Gorman's plight and then gone to Brother Crown, demanding that he write the letter and set the record straight. She was a persuasive, strong-minded woman, and Brother Crown had agreed to her demand.
That's how it must have happened, yet the situation did not seem to Quinn either real or plausible. He could believe Sister Blessing's part of it, but not Brother Crown's. Brother Crown had made no secret of his antipathy toward the Sister, he was not dependent on her, like some of the others; he was stubborn and he was self-righteous. Such a man would be unlikely to write a letter confessing a murder, at the request of one woman, on behalf of another.
it's not the situation that's unreal, it's the cast of characters. I can see Sister Blessing giving Crown an order, but I can't see Crown obeyÂing her. In their relationship the balance of power was in his hands, not hers.
Featherstone had returned to his favorite subject: his mother had been duped by a maniac, the man should be arrested, the whole colony taken to a booby hatch, and the buildings burned to the ground.
Quinn finally interrupted him. “I can understand your feelÂings, Mr. Featherstone, butâ”
“You can't. She wasn't your mother. You don't know what it's like to watch a member of your own family being hypnotized by a madman into leading a life not fit for a dog.”
“I'm sorry you didn't have a chance to see your mother before she died. Her life was a lot happier than you seem to realize. If she made sacrifices, she also had compensations. She told me that she had at last found her place in the world and that she would never leave it.”
talking, it was
“It was your mother, telling me quite seriously what she really believed.”
“The poor, crazy fool.
that's what she was.”
“At least she was a fool in her own way.”
“Are you sticking up for him?”
“No, for her, Mr. Featherstone.”
There was a groan on the other end of the line, then a woman's voice: “I'm sorry, my husband can't talk about this anymore, he's too upset. I'll have to make the arrangements about theâthe body. There'll be an autopsy?”
“When it's over, when she can be shipped here for burial, will you let me know?”
“Then I guess there's nothing more to say right now exceptâwell, please excuse Charlie.”
“Yes. Good-bye, Mrs. Featherstone.”
Quinn replaced the phone. His hands were shaking, and though the room was cold, sweat slithered down behind his ears into his collar. He wiped it off and went out into the corridor.
Lassiter was standing just outside the door, talking to a severe-looking young man in a policeman's uniform.
He said to Quinn, “O.K. for Charlie?”
“O.K. for Charlie.”
“Thanks. This is Sergeant Castillo. He's been working on those cartons we found in the storage shed. Tell him, SerÂgeant.”
Castillo nodded. “Yes, sir. Well, the clothes contained in the first one, labeled Brother Faith of Angels, have not been in there more than a week, perhaps much less.”
“We know that,” Lassiter said impatiently. “They belonged to George Haywood. Go on, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir. The contents of the carton labeled Brother Crown of Thorns haven't been touched for several years. My estimate would be six years, based mainly on the amount of moth damage. Entomology is one of my hobbies. If you'd like me to go into detail about the life cycle of this particular kind of moth and how each generationâ”
“That won't be necessary. We'll take your word for it. Six years it is.”
“Another interesting point concerns Brother Crown's name on the carton. I'd say it was pasted on quite recently. When I removed it, there was evidence underneath that another label had been there previously and torn off. Only a trace of it reÂmained.”
“Any letters visible?”
“All right. Thanks.” Lassiter waited for the sergeant to get out of earshot. “Six years. What does it prove, Quinn?”
“That the clothes didn't belong to Brother Crown. He joined the colony only three years ago.”
“How do you know that?”
“Karma told me. She's the young daughter of the cook, Sister Contrition.”
“So we've tabbed the
man,” Lassiter said harshly. “Not that it makes any difference. No one's seen hide or hair of any of them. The whole damn caboodle has disappeared, leaving me with a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, five goats and some chickens. How do you like that?”
Quinn liked it quite well, in a way, though all he said was, “Am I free to go now?”
“To a restaurant for some dinner and a motel for some sleep.”
“And after that?”
“After that I don't know. I have to find a job. Maybe I'll head for L.A.”
“Then again, maybe you won't,” Lassiter said. “Why not stick around here for a while?”
“Is that an order?”
“It's a nice little city, San Felice. Mountains, ocean, parks, beaches, harbor.”
“And no jobs.”
“You have to look for them, I'll admit that. But the place is gradually opening up to a few smokeless industries. Try applying.”
“Is that an order?” Quinn repeated. “I hope not, Sheriff. I can't stay here. I have to go back to Chicote, for one thing. . . . Has anyone broken the news to George Haywood's mother?”
“I called the Chief of Police there. He'll have done it by this time.”
“Somebody had better tell Alberta, too,” Quinn said. “She might have something to tell in return.”
“Why she hired one of the Brothers to kill O'Gorman, and how Haywood found out about it.”