Authors: Medora Sale
“And I could just as well ask why you're messing around with my life. What difference does it make to you what friends I have and when I visit them? What right do you have to interfere in what I choose to do?”
Sanders gritted his teeth. It was time to bring reason into the discussion. “Look, Harriet, I'm sorry about last night.”
“Whatever for? You didn't do anything. Not that I can recall, anyway.” She drawled these last few words, and he winced.
He rubbed his hands over his temples in a gesture of despair, took a deep breath, and stared down at the rough tiles of the floor. “What I'm sorry about,” he said carefully, “is that last night we didn't get a chance to talk about anything that I think . . . that I was hoping we might be able to say.” He looked up. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Nikki has asked me to dinner. I have accepted.” Her voice was still chilly. “She is twenty-two, and her mother has just died. It seemed a humane thing to do.”
“Shit,” he muttered. “No, don't get me wrong. Of course you're doing the right thing, except . . .”
“Except that you think she poisoned her mother. Deliberately and, as they say, with malice aforethought. Right? Using her cousin's generous supply of potassium cyanide. Well, she tells me she didn't. I think you should at least entertain that possibility. There must have been other people who wanted a crack at poor Clara's money. Haven't you even considered them?”
“They didn't have a chance to put cyanide in Clara's cup. Nikki did,” said Sanders flatly.
Sanders held up a hand. “Just a minute. I'm not trying to steer you away from who could have done what when, but . . . about that cyanide. One question. How reasonable is Klaus Leitner's explanation for having all that cyanide downstairs? “
“I don't know,” said Harriet. “You didn't tell me what his explanation was.” In spite of the coldness of the words, he thought he could detect a slight liveliness behind her wide green eyes and deadpan expression. And that meant there was still hope for him.
“He said he used it in developingâ”
“Not terribly likely,” she interrupted.
“ânegatives,” finished Sanders.
“Possible. Just possible. Did he say why? Or did he just throw it in, as if everyone used cyanide? I certainly don't use it myself. Or own any. And I assure you, I know what I'm doing.”
Sanders frowned. “Just a minute,” he said. “I think those pictures are still in the study.” He stalked out, returning in a moment with Klaus Leitner's orange box. “It was these two prints on top,” he said, dragging a small table over in front of Harriet and spreading the two prints out in front of her. “This is what he took a picture of,” said Sanders, pointing to the long-legged nude, “and this is what it turned into after he dumped cyanide and God knows what else on the negative. Dubinsky has the explanation written down. I could find him for you if that would help.”
Harriet looked at the two prints and shook her head. “No, don't bother. My God, what pretentious bullshit these kids turn out. But it's all right. He was using it to intensify the negative, and yes, you use cyanide for that. As a process I think it's garbage, but a lot of very respected people would disagree with me. Artistic, you know,” she added, her tone heavy with sarcasm. He was relieved; he had developed a profound respect for her abilities, and he was afraid she would like that picture. “Anyway, he didn't buy the cyanide just to poison Clara.” She stacked up the two prints and dropped them back in the box. “He's not a bad photographer, by the way. That nude was good before he started screwing around with the processing. He still could have done it, though.”
“Look, Harriet. Nikki poured fresh tea for her mother shortly before she drank it. As far as I can find out, she was the only person who went anywhere near that cup. Everyone else is accounted for.”
“But why did the poison have to be in the cup? Why not in the pot?”
“Think about it, Harriet,” he said reasonably. “If you make a pot of tea or coffee at a party and fill it full of cyanide, then God only knows who you're going to poison. I mean, the person you're after might decide to have another drink instead, or someone else might see the fresh pot of tea and think, Oh, goody, that's just what I need right now. And old Auntie Maude pours herself a cup. Not only do you do in someone you're not after, but you won't get the right person. Who's going to want tea after watching Auntie Maude writhing on the carpet? For chrissake, Harriet,
could have drunk that tea,” he said with some irritation.
“Not a chance,” said Harriet. “She drank the most godawful muckâsome foul-tasting weed or other from the Alps. She was forever trying to foist it on people; she said it calmed the nerves and cleaned the bloodstream and helped you sleep and I don't know what else. It might have worked for her, but no one else would even try it.” She yawned and stretched, completely unaware of the effect of her words.
He was sitting bolt upright now, staring at her. “Are you sure?”
“Sure of what?”
“That no one else would drink her tea? No one else at the party?”
“Well, I don't know everyone who was at the party, but they all knew Clara, and if they knew her, they'd met that tea. She carried it around with her and used to get restaurants to make it for her. I tried it once, and that was enough. And I suppose everyone else did, too. If you dumped cyanide in the teapot, no one but poor Clara would drink it. Except maybe someone who didn't know her.” She considered that for a moment. “Not even that. It smelled very strange. You'd have trouble getting it close to your face without noticing that it was very peculiar stuff. So, of course, the poison could have been in the pot, couldn't it?” She sat up straighter. “And that lets out Nikki.”
“No,” he said. “But it does let in a few more people, like anyone else who could have been in the kitchen after the tea was made. Damn. That means going back over everyone's movements. . . .” His voice drifted off, and he stood up. “I'm still talking to your friend before I leave. And you can tell her she's under surveillance, in case she decides to bolt.”
Harriet yawned and picked up a magazine. “You tell her,” she said in a bored voice. “But go ahead. Talk to her all you like.”
At precisely midnight, Constable Peter Franklin drove up the circular drive in front of Clara von Hohenkammer's house and parked behind another cruiser. He slid quietly out of the car and walked over to the drowsy occupant of the other cruiser. “Everything quiet?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Constable Strong. “It's about time you turned up,” he went on, yawning. “This is boring as hell. The girl has gone to bed, I think. That's her bedroom up there”âhe pointed to the front right set of windows on the second floorâ“and she turned the light out about ten o'clock. The doors are all locked; the gardener is around. He's supposed to look after security, so you might see something of him. If you stick around here, you'll be able to keep an eye on everything well enough. Have fun.” And with this vain wish, he drove gently off.
Franklin was resigned as he settled back in the car. Not that he enjoyed surveillance, but tonight looked easy. All he had to do was stay awake. The crickets chirped; the trees rustled occasionally. In this law-abiding neighbourhood there was no other noise. Then, suddenly, the sound of a door closing reverberated like a gunshot in the silence. Franklin tensed, turned his head in the direction of the noise, and waited, alert to every whisper in the air. Soon he heard footsteps, loud and steady, on a gravel surface. He reached for the door handle and peered into the darkness to see what he was dealing with. Without warning, he was blinded by a bright light in his eyes. A soft voice said, “Evening, Officer.” The beam of light moved down, and he blinked.
“Who are you?” Franklin barked, opening the door and stepping out. The man was almost as tall as he was, but young and slighter in build. His English was accented, and his face was mild and conciliatory.
“Sorry . . . Paul Esteban. I'm gardener here, and in charge of security. Or I was, before DoÃ±a Clara was killed.” He shrugged. “I suppose I still am, until things are finished up. I was just making my last round. I didn't mean to frighten you.” It was difficult to tell if he spoke with a sardonic edge to his voice or if, perhaps, he meant what he said.
“Everything quiet tonight?” asked Franklin, who, after a brief and heartfelt struggle between revenge for the scare and desire for a peaceful shift, elected peace.
“Very quiet,” said the gardener. “I came out to sayâ I don't know if you're permitted to do this, but Bettl, the housekeeper, she always leaves me a big thermos of coffee. If you want to come in, you're welcome to some. I can't drink it allânever do. She makes good coffee.” He sounded diffident, embarrassed, as if never in his life could he have imagined offering an invitation to someone in authority.
“Thanks,” said Franklin stiffly, although with some deeply hidden reluctance. He could taste hot, strong coffee. “Couldn't possibly come inside. I'm on duty. But I'm fine out here.”
“I'll bring the thermos out to you, then,” said Esteban. “Just leave it on the step before you go.”
“Well . . .” said Franklin, uneasy but not quite sure what was wrong with the suggestion. “I guessâ” The gardener was gone before the constable could frame his next sentence.
In less than a minute Esteban was back, holding a large thermos. “I'm going to bed,” he said lightly. “How many security people do you need around the place in one night? I've left the dogs locked up.” The gardener laughed and headed around the house.
Franklin waited until Esteban's footsteps disappeared in the distance before opening the thermos and trying the coffee with a certain amount of caution. It was strong and bitter, just what he needed on a night like this; he blew on it to cool it down and drank most of it.
The police officer stared up at the windows of the house, passing the time by counting how many there were. It was a strangely taxing occupation. The windows kept shifting sideways, not really wanting to be counted, and he had to open his eyes very wide to enable them to concentrate on each one long enough to number it off. Still, life seemed very pleasant and slow and relaxed, with nothing to worry about . . . nothing at all to worry about . . . worry . . .
The noises filtered through to him at an enormous distance. People talking. A metallic screech. A door? A door . . . He struggled to raise his head and open his eyes. There shouldn't be doors opening. His eyelids were fastened shut, and he fought to force them open. Footsteps and more voices. He tried to lurch to his feet and was stopped by something smooth and round. A steering wheel, his fingers told him at last. Have to get out of the car, said one small part of his brain. Have to look. The car door was swinging open beside him, and he fell out onto the gravel. He blinked. Once, then twice. It was dark. He pushed his hands against the gravel and somehow was on his feet again, moving toward the house, his legs folding and buckling and growing fantastically long and unwieldy under him. He looked up at the front door and blinked. Locked, said his brain. Back door. He fell against the side of the house and let it carry him around. He wasn't surprised to find the back door swinging open. He grabbed the doorframe; it swayed and swelled in his grasp, bringing him dangerously close to the floor. A stove floated over to his right. A kitchen. If only he could lie down on the nice soft floor for just a moment. . . . Footsteps echoed in front of him, and he pushed himself forward again, leaning on the walls with his long, rubbery arms. He threw himself in the direction of the door to the central hall.
Just then the door next to it opened up. He blinked again and turned his head with painful slowness in the direction of the sudden light. Someone made a noise. He raised an arm in a gesture of menace or self-defense, but too late to protect him from the slashing blow to the side of his head. He crumpled onto the floor and lay still.
By nine o'clock that evening Veronika von Hohenkammer had been dazed. She felt exhausted, ill, achy, utterly wretched. Sanders had abandoned her in the study after ten hostile minutes of questions, during which he went over the same material one more time, rarely pausing long enough for answers. Left alone with Harriet at last, she had poured out her tale and the background to her tale and finally her life history. Harriet had listened silent and stony faced, the least sympathetic looking confidante that Nikki had ever run into. At nine o'clock, over the remains of dinner, Harriet had finally poured herself a cup of coffee and decided she was too tired to listen anymore. She told Nikki brusquely that it was time for bed. Nikki had sworn that she wouldn't sleepâshe hadn't slept the night before at allâand Harriet had stood up abruptly and walked into the kitchen.
When Veronika followed her in, she found her engaged in heating up a small saucepan of milk. “If that's for me,” she said, “I hate milk, and warm milk is disgusting.”
“Shut up,” said Harriet, her last dregs of amiability gone long since. She stalked back into the dining room and began to open doors: to the sideboard, to the linen press, to the small teak cabinet. “Bingo,” she said. “Scotch. I knew there'd be some in the house.”
“What are you doing?” asked Nikki, following her back into the kitchen. By now the milk was boiling over onto the stove, and Harriet moved the saucepan off the burner.
“Preparing an ancient native remedy, known only to a few million North Americans,” she said curtly, grabbing a glass. She poured in a dollop of Scotch, added the scalded milk, found some nutmeg, and grated it in. “There, take that upstairs, get ready for bed, open up a really boring book, and drink it. You will find staying awake impossible. I'm going home. I'm so tired I can't keep my eyes open.”
Only now Veronika was wide awake. Her mouth felt thick and woolly; her eyes throbbed, her stomach fluttered unhappily, but she was thoroughly awake. Her ears rang with the memory of some alarming sound. Something must have awakened her, then. She sat up in bed and reached for her watch: one-fifteen. She was never going to get back to sleep. A door slammed. A car engine started up, very close. She heard voices, voices she could not quite understand, say something brief and then be quiet again. The car must be in the driveway that ran up beside the west side of the house, right under her window. Doors slammed shut. The car moved away in a burst of engine noise and squeal of tires. The police, thought Nikki. Checking up on her. Prowling through the house as if they owned it, hoping to rattle her and trick her into running away. She pulled the sheet over her head; tears oozed into her freshly laundered pillowcase.
The ringing telephone caught Sanders just as he was about to go home. Dubinsky had left hours ago, grumbling that he wasn't crazy enough to spend the night there, and Sanders had no choice but to pick up the receiver. It was the sergeant on night duty, with worry in his voice. “Inspector? Franklin hasn't reported,” he said. “He's fifteen minutes late, and they can't raise him. They want to send in a teamâ”
“For chrissake, that's all we need,” grumbled Sanders. “Six cars charging up there, lights flashing, all the neighbours screaming bloody murder. No. He's probably in the kitchen, cozying up to the housekeeper, eating bacon and eggs. I'll drop by on my way home. If there's anything wrong, I'll call in.” He picked up his jacket and left.
Sanders parked the car in front of the house, behind Franklin's cruiser, grabbed a flashlight, and jumped impatiently out. The night was cool and still, the neighbourhood silent except for the frantic call of a cricket and the faraway hum of traffic. He shone his light into the cruiser, half-expecting to find a tired constable deep in slumber. Nothingâ just Franklin's private thermos of coffee on the passenger seat. He listened for the muted crashing of someone doing a tour of the property. Not a sound. Unless he was barefoot and very agile, Franklin wasn't walking around out there. The silence of the night seemed to grow in intensity as he strained to listen. He turned off his flashlight. The house was still and dark, and he was beginning to like the situation less and less. It occurred to him that he had been crazy to come out here alone. Tell me, Inspector Sanders, he muttered to himself, exactly how much does lack of sleep impair your judgment. A little? Somewhat? A lot?
As he started a slow circuit of the house, the spot between his shoulder blades twitched. He was brave enough when occasion demanded it, he supposed. But tonight we're talking about stupidity, not bravery, he thought. And stupidity got people killed. He thought of Underhill, the cheerful kid from the Thirty-third Division, who ended up with a bullet in his back on a night like this, and stopped to listen hard behind him. He rounded the back corner of the house onto the patio and walked over to the French doors that led into the conservatory. Suddenly the leg of a chair materialized under him, and he stumbled, smashed his shin, almost fell, and cursed. He turned on his flashlight, picked his way through the garden furniture over to the door, and shone the light through the glass.
The little conservatory was tranquil in its emptiness. He raised his arm to break through the panel of glass in front of him and then stopped. There was a red light glowing from beside the door inside. A burglar alarm. “My God, Sanders,” he muttered. He had been about to break into a substantial house on the insubstantial evidence of an empty car. He shook his head. Time to raise the inhabitants and get let in legally. In the meantime, he could use a little backup in case something had gone wrong.
Moments later, he was standing on the front doorstep, leaning on the bell, having already called in a bad-tempered demand that they get the security system turned off and send help. He could hear the expensive gongs reverberate, to no effect. No lights going on, no noises of irritable sleepers. He rang again. And again. He stood back and looked up at the windows for some sign of movement. Nothing. He moved back around the house as fast as he could and peered once more through the glass. To hell with the alarm, he thought, picking up a metal chair and using it to smash a hole through the glass in the door. He reached in carefully and turned the knob. No sirens, no bells, no red lights. Nothing disturbed the silence of the night. He flicked on the overhead light. The room was empty. As he reached the door into the hall, he heard the faint, irregular gasps of someone struggling for breath. One sweep of his light answered his questions. Franklin was lying on his stomach in the open doorway to the basement. Blood was pouring down the constable's face and onto the floor from an indefinable mess on the side of his head.
Sanders looked at the wound helplessly. None of his emergency training had covered hemorrhaging through a mass of shattered bone. And even if he knew what to do, he didn't think he could bring himself to touch that battered head. In the distance he heard the approaching ruckus from the emergency call and ran toward the front door, bumping against furniture, cursing and moving his light around until he found the round knob of a rheostat. With an impatient twist he turned it up to full power; the entire central portion of the house blazed with light from the enormous chandelier hanging above him.
The first uniformed man was already running up to the house as he opened the door. He charged up the steps, his pistol in his hand, ready to shoot anything that moved. “Put that goddamn thing away before you hurt somebody. Where in hell's the ambulance?” snapped Sanders.
“What ambulance? You hurt?”
“Christ almighty!” he snarled. “No, you idiot, he isâthe one lying on the floor.”
“My God, who's that?”
“Franklin. He was supposed to be watching this place.” Mumbling incoherently, the constable shoved his weapon away and turned to go back and radio for further aid when the next carload of help pulled up and disgorged two officers. Within moments there were five men in the front hall looking expectantly at Sanders. “Could one of you clowns go back there and see to Franklin?” he asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm. A figure hastily detached itself from the group. “And upstairs there should be three more people. God knows how they slept through all this, so maybe someone had better just tiptoe up there and see what's up.” The two men closest to the stairs looked at each other and, taking him at his word, began to move gingerly up the stairs.