Authors: Frances and Richard Lockridge
Murder in a Hurry
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
Frances and Richard Lockridge
Monday, May 23, 10:15
. to 11:50
It is an inconsiderable street neither long nor wide, and it is appropriately modest. As if even further to shorten its length, it bends in the middle, abandoning a course which is roughly west by south to pursue one which is by a degree or two north of west. This sort of behavior on the part of streets is familiar enough to those who live in downtown New York, but many feel that West Kepp Street somewhat overdoes it. Those who live in West Kepp Streetâthere is no East Kepp Street, and so far as anyone knows there never wasâspeak of it with an odd mixture of fondness and apology; it is, they say, the funniest little street, and the hardest to find.
It is, certainly, hard enough to find. Taxicab drivers who can go unerringly, and by one of the shorter routes, to the always somewhat preposterous intersection of West Fourth and West Twelfth Streets, are baffled when Kepp is mentioned. Taking strangers there, they pause to enquire the way of other hackers and even, as a last resort, of traffic patrolmen. Such enquiries are seldom satisfactorily answered, nor are residents of the neighborhood often much more helpful. They have heard of it; it is surely around here somewhere. It is over that way, probably; but perhaps, on the other hand, it is over this way. But then more often than not, they decide they probably are thinking of Gay Street, which also has a crook in it and runs from nowhere in particular to nowhere of importance.
Homing Kepp Streeters do not, therefore, precisely reveal their destination to cab drivers or to friends who have agreed to drop them off. They assign a more comprehensible objective, a nearby landmark, and promise to guide from there; expecting valued guests, they commonly arrange to meet them at the nearest subway station and lead on by hand, as one living in the trackless suburbs will meet visitors at the white barn which cannot be missed (but often is) and is on your right just before you come to that series of forks which can in no manner be described.
And having finally been led to West Kepp Street, visitors are unimpressed and, not wishing too much to offend local prideâthere is nothing, not even West Kepp Street, of which someone cannot be proudâare apt to say hesitantly that it is a very quaint little street. But even this term, unaffirmative as it is, is not particularly applicable. West Kepp Street is not lined by crooked little houses, with window boxes and red doors. Patchin Place is much more quaint; Macdougal Alley has it all over West Kepp Street for oddity. The buildings on either side of West Kepp Street are four and five story tenements, most of them still with the indigenous stoops. They have, to be sure, been reconstructed internally, so that now instead of large inconvenient flats they contain, in most cases, small inconvenient apartments which are entered through a kitchenette.
The street itself is absurdly narrow; two cars could hardly pass, even were two-way traffic allowed. Car owners living in West Kepp Street park, habitually, half on the sidewalks, which is manifestly illegal. But the police seldom visit West Kepp Street, which is otherwise generally law abiding. Firemen assigned to the nearest company sometimes shudder when they think of West Kepp Street, knowing that no hook-and-ladder could be got around the corner and that the buildings, in spite of their new fire resistant staircases, are merely waiting to go up in flames. But, so far, none of them ever has.
All things considered, it would be difficult to find anywhere in New York a location less attractive to commercial enterprise than West Kepp Street. At both ends of it there are, to be sure, shops, but they front on streets which, by comparison, are thoroughfares and present their flanks only to West Kepp. Those one might expect. But halfway along West Kepp itself, and just where it bends (as an over-tall man stoops a little, to make himself less conspicuous) there is nevertheless a shop. It occupies the ground floor of one of the four story buildings, it is reached by going down three steps and in recent months it has been vacant. One may still see the sign it last bore: “J. K. Halder, Pets.” Curious people wandering through (and generally lost in) West Kepp Street stop to peer through the shop's dusty front window, but they see nothing for their pains. There are no longer any pets in Mr. Halder's pet shop, nor is there any longer Mr. Halder. The pets are elsewhere and so, of course, may Mr. Halder be. But he is no longer alive.
He was alive at ten-fifteen on the night of May twenty-third. He left a cab at the eastern end of West Kepp Street and walked down the street to his shop. He was an erect, slim man and, although it was a warm evening, he wore a light topcoat over his dinner clothes and a suitable dark hat on his gray hair. He was seventy-two years old and recently had been feeling older than his years justified. He was not thinking about this at the moment; he was very annoyed about something else. He shook his head as he walked toward the shop and, once, said a few angry words. But there was nobody near enough to notice his shaking head, or to overhear his words, and this, as things turned out, was rather a pity.
Mr. Halder went down the three steps and two cocker puppies in a pen in the window hurled themselves delightedly at the windowpane, pawing at it with earnest, ridiculous feet, opening pink mouths widely, emitting high-pitched, happy barks. In the pen next them a long-haired black kitten, awakened by this nonsense, stood up, arched her back, relaxed it and, with forepaws extended and clutching the floor, stretched it the other way. Having thus established that she was in working order, she moved over to the window, looked up at Mr. Halder, and opened her mouth. If she said anything, it was not audible through the glass.
Mr. Halder unlocked the door and went into the shop, which at once became noisy. The black kitten pushed a paw between the wooden bars of her pen and attempted to reach Mr. Halder's coat, meanwhile calling attention to herself as loudly as a small cat could. The cockers tried to jump out of their pen, bouncing hopefully against the bars, now and then falling down and not minding. From the shadows of the shop, which was deep, a variety of other sounds emerged.
“Good evening,” Mr. Halder said, gravely, and turned on a center light. The variegated clamor increased. “Now now,” said Mr. Halder. “Now now.” The sounds did not abate.
Without removing either hat or coat, Mr. Halder then began his rounds. He went first to the black kitten, in the pen nearest the door. He put down a hand and the kitten, hardly bothering to smell it, rubbed against the offered fingers and began to purr. “You're a very pretty girl,” Mr. Halder assured her and went to the cockers in the next pen. The kitten walked along beside him until the mesh between the pens stopped her. She put her nose to the mesh and, thoughtfully, smelled dogs. Mr. Halder tumbled the puppies briefly and continued, followed by their barks, by their adoring brown eyes.
Other pens, half a dozen of them, ran down one wall. Three dachshunds, almost full grown, were in the pen nearest the front of the shop and they stood up against the bars, shaking their rear ends furiously, holding their heads to be stroked. Mr. Halder obliged and spoke friendly words; he continued to the next pen, which held a single Siamese cat. The cat was waiting, sitting straight, black tail curled to the circle of the haunches. He was a young male; he spoke to Mr. Halder peremptorily, in a harsh voice. But then he rose and rubbed against the bars, pressing closely against them. Mr. Halder scratched behind the pointed brown-black ears. The cat purred, much more resonantly than had the black long-hair.
The third cage was empty; the fourth held a baby boxer and she, curled in the back of the cage, only raised her head when Mr. Halder stopped in front of her. “Poor girl,” he said, and she whimpered a little at his voice. “Nice girl, poor girl,” Mr. Halder said, but he did not touch her. Whatever ailed her, and the veterinarian was not yet certain, Mr. Halder wanted to do nothing to spread it. By tomorrow they would be able to tell whether the penicillin was working. Mr. Halder shook his head again, but this time in commiseration, not in anger. The next pen also was empty; the baby boxer was in isolation.
Five kittens were piled in the last pen and these Mr. Halder very gently lifted, one by one, from the pen. He examined each in turn, stroking gently with a forefinger. They were too young for all this; they should still be with their mother. But their mother, after several years of wariness in traffic, had the week before proved herself not quite wary enough. If he could bring the kittens to healthy semi-maturity, Mr. Halder thought, he might be able to find foster homes for them. So far they seemed to be doing as well as could be expected. He put the last one back in the pile; it crawled over the others and dug itself in, sleepily.
Mr. Halder then visited two small monkeys in a single cage in the rear of the shop and looked thoughtfully at a shrouded cage containing a parrot, but decided to let well enough alone. Now and then he almost wished somebody would buy the parrot. Mr. Halder took off his hat and coat and went out through the rear of the shop, entering the single room in which he lived. He tossed his hat and coat on the bed, went to a refrigerator for food and began to measure it out for the animals. Being young, they required bed-time snacks.
Watching Mr. Halder prepare the food, one might have thought him over-fussy about it, and indeed, the animals in the main room seemed to feel this and made audible protests, having recognized the clunk of the closing refrigerator door. Hurry, the dogs told him; hurry, we are starving. What are you doing out there? the young Siamese demanded, abrupt and harsh. The small black cat, high-voiced, was plaintive, and almost drowned out. Even some canaries, although not immediately concerned, piped small remarks. But Mr. Halder, working under a bright light which threw the remainder of his living quarters into shadow, heating milk for the youngest kittens, ground meat for the other cats, prepared food for the dogs, did not hurry. He washed the feeding dishes meticulously, measured food into them with precision; might, for the care he expended, the scrupulous cleanliness he exercised, have been preparing food in the diet kitchen of some most modern hospital. He would not, as old Felix often told him, go to half so much trouble for himself. But that was so obvious that Mr. Halder did not bother to think about it and was surprised to hear it mentioned, even by old Felix.
He took milk to the smallest kittens first; took milk warmed, in a broad, flat pan. The kittens were standing, wobbling slightly, making small sounds. He put the pan down carefully in the center of their pen and, when all of them tried to eat at the same segment of the pan's circumference, rearranged them with gentle care. The kittens made strange, bobbing motions at the milk, now and then putting up small, surprised heads and sneezing as milk entered their noses. But the progress generally was encouraging; watching them for a moment, Mr. Halder speculated as to where he would find homes for them, feeling that their chances of growing up were improving. He smiled down at the kittens and went back to get the sick boxer's broth. She lapped at it with little interest and then went again to the rear of her pen and lay down, now on her side. Mr. Halder shook his head and made sad sounds with tongue and teeth.