Authors: Charlotte MacLeod
Open Road Integrated Media
For Maggie Curran
“EDMUND! YOU KNOW BETTER
than that. Dragging in some poor, dead creature just as I’ve finished mopping the floor.”
Like Eliza navigating the ice floes, Mrs. Betsy Lomax stepped from one to another of the newspapers she’d put down to protect her clean, wet linoleum. Edmund was a well brought up cat, as cats go, but males were tomcats the world over.
“Never seen one yet, feline, human, or otherwise, that could pass up a chance to trail his muddy feet through a fresh-scrubbed kitchen,” she grumbled. “I’ve a good mind to slosh you right between the whiskers with this mop.”
But what would be the use? Edmund’s memory for punishments that conflicted with his hunting instincts was conveniently short. Besides, Betsy Lomax was deeply attached to Edmund. Furthermore, much as she deplored wanton slaughter, she had to admit chipmunks were not an endangered species. This had to be a chipmunk. The lump of ruddy fur clamped between Edmund’s jaws was too big for a field mouse.
No, it wasn’t a chipmunk. It wasn’t a red squirrel, either. It wasn’t a mole or a vole or anything recognizably four-legged. It was only a scrap of fur. Wrong again, it wasn’t even fur. It was hair. Human hair, from the look of it. Mrs. Lomax wasn’t a squeamish woman, but she gulped once or twice and folded the hem of her apron over her fingers before she reached down to pry Edmund’s mouth open.
“I do declare!” she gasped, when she’d got the prey away from him. “Edmund, have you been sneaking into Professor Ungley’s bedroom again? He’s going to have seventeen kitten fits in one straight row if he ever finds out you’ve taken this. Now what in tarnation am I going to do?”
Betsy Lomax had reason to ponder. Professor Emeritus Herbert Ungley was touchy about a great many things, but most particularly on the subject of his hairpiece. He’d managed to delude himself into believing there wasn’t a soul in Balaclava Junction who knew he wore one; even though the toupee was the same ginger color it had been when he’d sneaked into Boston some forty years back and bought it, while the few hairs that still managed to straggle out of his scalp emerged an unpleasant yellowish white.
Ungley was an unpleasant old man altogether, if it came to that. He was also a careful tenant who’d been paying on the dot for more years than Mrs. Lomax cared to remember. A widow without a great deal to sustain her except her own two hands and the rent of her downstairs flat had to consider both sides of the situation. One way or another, she’d better get that hairpiece back to him before he missed it and threw a conniption.
Mrs. Lomax pondered her strategy. Professor Ungley wasn’t up yet, most likely. He’d never been one to bestir himself at first crack of dawn. Or second crack, either, if there was such a thing. Last night he’d been at the monthly meeting of that foolish Balaclavian Society, so he’d have got to bed later than usual. She nodded briskly to Edmund, cut a slice of fresh-baked coffee cake, laid it on a plate, and wrapped a paper napkin around it. Then she slipped the by now somewhat mangled hairpiece into her apron pocket, picked up the cake plate, and went down the back stairway.
She had a key to her tenant’s door, of course. She was used to going in and out, cleaning for the old man once a week and doing other chores as occasion required. Sometimes she’d leave him a little treat, not that she ever got thanked for it. The cake would make a plausible excuse if he should happen to be up and catch her coming in. Mrs. Lomax tapped gently, got no answer as she’d hoped she wouldn’t, unlocked the door, and went in. She’d just sneak the toupee into the bathroom and Ungley would never be the wiser. At least he’d act as if he wasn’t, which would amount to the same thing for practical purposes. She started for the connecting door, then stopped in her tracks.
“Well, did you ever?”
She was too astonished not to make the remark out loud to Edmund, who’d tagged along hoping to get the toupee back. There on the kitchen sink stood the professor’s milk, untasted.
As Betsy Lomax well knew, for there was precious little about anything in Balaclava Junction she didn’t know, it was Herbert Ungley’s invariable habit to pour himself a glass of milk every afternoon at half-past four and leave it standing on the drainboard until he was ready for bed. By that time the chill would be off and he wouldn’t have to bother heating the milk. No two ways about it, Professor Ungley was a lazy man.
The old coot wasn’t too lazy to attend to his personal comforts, though. Why hadn’t he drunk that milk? Mrs. Lomax began to feel uneasy. Why hadn’t Edmund, if it came to that? He must have got in here somehow to find the toupee, and it wasn’t like him to pass up a chance at some free grub.
Professor Ungley had turned eighty on his last birthday. Mrs. Lomax knew that for a solemn fact because she’d been politely invited to bake him a birthday cake, though she hadn’t got asked to share it. Her own father had died at eighty. She sidled along toward the bedroom, listening for snores and not hearing any.
Her tenant was not in his room. Moreover, the bed hadn’t been slept in. She could tell; she’d changed the sheets and made it up fresh only yesterday, and it was just the way she’d left it.
Betsy Lomax was too sensible a woman to panic, but after she’d searched every inch of the flat to no avail, she found herself walking out the front door still wearing her apron and clutching the plate of coffee cake. The nippy autumn air brought her to her senses fast enough. She went back upstairs to put on a coat and cap.
“He could have fallen and twisted his ankle or something, I suppose,” she remarked to Edmund, who’d given up hope of the toupee and retired to sulk among the wax begonias on the window seat. “One of them,” she meant the Balaclavian Society members, “might have taken him home for the night and not bothered to let me know. Why should they? ’Tisn’t as if he was anything to me.”
Still, you couldn’t do for a man all these years without feeling some concern. If Ungley had hurt himself or got sick at the meeting, it was more likely his fellow members would have brought him back here and expected his landlady to take care of him. Unless he’d had to be rushed to the hospital. No, in that case she’d have heard by now, early as it was. A second cousin by marriage was sister-in-law to the admissions nurse who’d been on duty last night at the Hoddersville Hospital, which was the only one close by. Surely Priscilla’d have passed the word to Marge, and Marge would never have been mean enough to keep back a piece of news like that about Betsy’s own tenant.
Maybe she’d better phone Henry Hodger or one of the others. Maybe she’d better forget the phone and stir her stumps over toward the clubhouse. If Professor Ungley had fallen in the dark on his way home and lain out all night with a heavy frost—she pulled on her knitted gloves, tucked her door key into her palm, and went out.
IKE MOST NEW ENGLAND
main streets, Balaclava Junction’s had some pleasant old buildings. The Balaclavian Society’s clubhouse was not one of them. It was old, true enough, but not pleasant; just a sparse little box with too little paint on its clapboards, too many weeds in its yard. Out back was where she found him, lying hatless and of course wigless among the frost-blackened dock and plantain. Mrs. Lomax took one long, thoughtful look, then turned and walked down the main street to the police station.
Nobody could call Chief Fred Ottermole lazy. Though the station clock said not yet half-past eight, the chief was already behind his desk, diligently polishing his badge on the sleeve of his uniform.
“Fred,” said Betsy Lomax without regard to rank or protocol, “you hoist yourself right straight out of that chair and hike on over to the Balaclavian Society.”
“What for?” He blew on the badge, gave it one last rub, then pinned it on and stood up. “Somebody busted in and stole all their mothballs?”
“Don’t you smart-aleck me, young man. Professor Ungley’s out back in the weeds.”
“So what? That’s no crime, far’s I know.”
“Depends on who put him there, doesn’t it?”
“Huh? Oh, cripes! Not another murder?”
“I wouldn’t want to say, but I daresay I can tell a dead man when I see one. Furthermore, suppose you tell me what would possess a person his age to go wandering around back lots in the pitch dark on an October night with frost on the punkin and no rubbers on his feet. You’re going to look an awful fool if somebody else finds him before you do, Fred. Take a blanket or something with you in case old Mrs. Pearworthy happens along and gets the daylights scared out of her. I’ll stay here and call Dr. Melchett. He won’t have left for the hospital yet. Well, don’t stand there gawking. Move, can’t you? The body’s beside that old harrow they’ve always been going to do something about and never got around to.”
“Name me one thing they ever did get around to,” Ottermole grunted.
He’d already taken a gray blanket out of the first-aid locker, though, and was heading for the door. Nobody argued with Betsy Lomax, at least not successfully. Ottermole tried to tell himself a body behind the museum would be an interesting change from issuing stern warnings to youngsters throwing candy wrappers around the sidewalks, but he couldn’t make himself believe it. What he’d have preferred was a nice, uncomplicated traffic violation. His wife had given him a genuine gold-plated ball-point pen for his birthday and he was itching to write some duly impressed miscreant a ticket in grand style.
Besides, there’d been too many mysterious deaths around Balaclava of late. Fred Ottermole did not like mysterious deaths. Therefore, when he got to the scene of the alleged crime, he was disinclined to see anything remarkable about Professor Ungley’s demise.
“Plain as the nose on your face,” was his official verdict. “Tripped in the dark and fell against that old harrow. Hit one of the pegs. See all that blood on the back of his head?”
“I don’t see any on the harrow,” said Mrs. Lomax, who’d passed the word to Dr. Melchett as promised and then hustled back to where the action was. She wasn’t about to miss a trick if she could help it.
“You can’t tell with all that rust,” Ottermole argued.
“Who says you can’t?” she snapped back. “Blood’s darker than rust.”
“Well anyway, he’d have had his hairpiece on when he fell. That might have mopped it up, sort of. Say, where is it?”
Mrs. Lomax unbuttoned enough of her coat to get at her apron pocket. “Oh, hello, Dr. Melchett. I was just showing Fred the professor’s toupee. Edmund brought it into the house this morning, I’m ashamed to say. He thought it was something to play with. Can’t blame him for not knowing any better,” she added defensively.
“Edmund?” Dr. Melchett, who didn’t like bodies in odd places any better than Fred Ottermole did, eyed the hairpiece suspiciously. “Who’s Edmund?”
“Her cat,” the police chief explained. Fred and Edmund were rather good friends, as it happened. Edmund often dropped in at the station during his morning stroll for a rest and a bite of Fred’s coffee-break doughnut, which he could easily have done without. Those visits were the one thing in town Betsy Lomax didn’t know about.
“Anyway, that’s how I happened to come looking for Professor Ungley,” Mrs. Lomax told them. “You know how touchy he always was about not wanting anybody to know it wasn’t his own hair, as if this thing would fool a blind man. When I caught Edmund with the hairpiece, I couldn’t imagine how he’d got hold of it. Then I figured Professor Ungley must have left his door open, so I’d better go down and close it.”
That was close enough to the truth as made no matter. “So anyway, I went and. there was his glass of milk that he always drank before he went to bed, sitting on the sink still full. I began to get worried and went looking around. I saw the bed and knew he hadn’t been in it because I’d made it up fresh yesterday and it wasn’t even wrinkled. So I thought I’d better come over this way and take a look, and here he was.”
“You didn’t try to move him?” Dr. Melchett asked her.
“I never so much as laid a finger on him. At my time of life, I’ve been to enough funerals to know a corpse when I see one. To tell you the truth, it was no more than I expected, an old man like him out here on the bare ground all night.”