Authors: Robert Bruce Sinclair
And always, in the back of his mind, there was the problem of Helen’s gloves: the new ones, the ones she had bought today and had worn tonight. He dared not burn them: a thorough investigation might reveal that she had purchased gloves today, and he would have no way of accounting for their disappearance. He examined them carefully, under the strongest light he could find: they were not really soiled, but neither did they have that pristine quality which white gloves seem to lose the moment they are put on a hand. Here was a gamble he had to take, because he had deviated from the plan. He found some cleaning fluid, poured it in the wash basin, dunked the gloves in it, hung them up, and turned an electric fan on them, to hasten their drying.
Desperately he wanted that drink, but he refused to risk it. He made a sandwich and washed it down with a glass of milk. He longed to turn out the lights and get into bed; he had no fear of ghosts or conscience, he wanted only to relax, and forget his need for action or acting.
But it might seem strange, later, if the lights were turned off too early, and besides, there were still things to do. When, finally, the gloves were dry, he took them to the kitchen and ironed them. When he finished he was satisfied it would take an expert to determine whether they had ever been worn. He put them back in Helen’s handkerchief drawer. Now he might have that drink.
He made a highball, took it to his room, and started to undress. The drink was only half-finished when he was ready for bed. He remembered to go downstairs and turn on the porch light, and he left the hall light on. Then he closed his door, turned out the lights in his room, and got into bed to think out his program for tomorrow. But before he had even decided what time to get up, he was asleep.
Conway wakened slowly, dazedly, from a heavy, druglike sleep. Something in his subconscious kept jabbing him with a reminder that he must get up, but some part of his nervous system refused to let him move, to disturb the utter pleasure of this trancelike state. How long this tug of war went on, he did not know, but suddenly he was all awake, with a full realization of where he was, what had happened, and what still remained to be done. He sat up in bed and listened for a moment; for what, he did not quite know. He heard nothing but a wonderfully peaceful silence.
He called the Hollywood police station after breakfast, and was not surprised to learn that they had no report on either his wife or his car. At lunch time he decided it was simple prudence to avoid people as much as possible: no matter how well he played it, it was too easy to make a slip. He was in the clear, he knew that; discovery was possible only if he gave himself away. The fewer people he saw, the less chance of anything going wrong. He wanted to stay out of restaurants and bars, so he went to the nearest market and laid in a supply of meat and canned goods which would last him several days.
The neighbors, fortunately, were no problem: both he and Helen had retained the New Yorker’s habit of aloofness with neighbors who, because of propinquity, might conceivably impinge on one’s privacy. He barely knew by sight the people in the houses next door.
When he returned home, the house seemed cold and a little musty, although it was hot outside. After his dutiful call to the police station, he opened the windows in the living room, and the warm breezes flowed in and through the house. He got a bottle of beer and sat with his feet up on a table, and was suddenly conscious that he liked this place which had so recently been a prison. He was free and relieved of care; he had never known a feeling of such complete well-being. Perhaps, once — yes, it reminded him of that time. They had been fighting north of Rome; the outfit was relieved, sent to a rear area, and the gang got furloughs together. They’d gone to recently liberated Rome, and had rooms in a hotel, and even had baths. They had been clean and free: the grim weariness, the discipline, the fear of death which had been the most important things in life for so long were suddenly effaced. They had all felt it then: the ineffable peace, the sensation of being in a world where there was no war, no conflict, no unpleasantness even; where there were no orders to obey, no one to please or propitiate. It had been a Godsend then, for without those few blissful days they might all have cracked, as he did... This present surcease had come none too soon; he might, indeed, as Helen had predicted, have cracked again.
But not now. Not any more. He took a long pull at the beer. He was free now. He had peace. He could live, now, and work. And it was time to get to work.
He went upstairs and sat down before the typewriter. But he was hearing the ring of every telephone in the neighborhood, and between going to the stairs to be sure it was not his, and looking out the window every time it seemed a car might be stopping, he accomplished almost nothing. About five o’clock his phone did ring, and he had to rehearse his “Hello” three times before he dared lift the instrument and speak the word into the mouthpiece. But it was a wrong number, and he returned to his room nervous and let down.
He found he had neither the ambition to cook dinner nor the appetite to eat it. He had a sandwich and then tried, first, writing, then reading, then solitaire. Finally he sat and stared at the ceiling.
By one o’clock he felt that he might sleep. He dozed off almost as soon as he was in bed, and was wide-awake in half an hour. He spent the rest of the night alternately smoking, reading, drinking hot milk, pacing the floor, drinking beer, and trying to sleep; giving up, and then repeating the whole routine. A little after seven he did doze off, and was awake at eight. He got up then and faced the bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes in the mirror. Because he was so sure it was only a matter of minutes, he shaved, showered and dressed before he went downstairs. He called the police station, and it was no longer a routine call. Because his anxiety was so genuine, he tried to curb it, and wondered, as he did, whether it sounded less convincing than when he was play-acting.
The morning was as interminable as the night had been. How long, he wondered, could one stand going on in this vacuum? He puttered about the house, emptying ashtrays, washing dishes. It had been two days before the waitress had been found, he knew; he had even counted on a similar lapse of time. He opened the windows, but the breezes that wandered in had lost their magic. That couple who had seen him park the car: how long would they wait before reporting it? The longer the better, he tried to tell himself. He wished that he might go into the garden and do some physical labor; it might get his mind off this gnawing worry. But he might be spoken to by one of the neighbors; better not to risk it. He stared at the sheet of paper in the typewriter, and told himself that as soon as the suspense was over, he’d be able to work.
About one o’clock he went to the kitchen, looked at the steaks and chops and cold chicken he had brought home, and made himself a cheese sandwich. He ate in the kitchen; the cheese seemed dry and tasteless and it was an effort to down it. He gave up when he had eaten half of it, threw the remainder away, and took the plate and the knife he had used to the sink.
He was holding the plate under the faucet when the bell rang. It sounded with such clarion loudness that he dropped the plate, smashing it, and stood staring at the source of the startling sound. It was the front doorbell, which happened to be on the wall over the sink, and he had heard it so seldom in all the time he had lived in the house, that it was several moments before he realized what it was. He dried his hands and went to the door.
“Mr. Arthur Conway?” Conway nodded wordlessly. “My name’s Larkin. Homicide Bureau. Mind if I come in?”
Conway opened the door wider and stepped aside. He had expected a telephone call; that would have given him time to prepare himself for the inevitable police interview. He’d had two days to prepare, true, but he needed those few minutes between the call and the meeting. This detective, here without warning — did it mean something had gone wrong?
“What is it?” he said, and his mouth was dry.
“Sit down, Mr. Conway,” the detective said. “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you.”
“You’ve found her?” Conway sat, but only so that he could watch the detective’s eyes more closely. He had to determine how much the other knew.
“We’ve found your car.”
“But Helen — Mrs. Conway—”
“This is going to be a shock, Mr. Conway. There was a body in the car, and I’m afraid it’s your wife. I’d like you to come down with me now to identify her — if it is her.”
“What happened?” Larkin hesitated and looked at the floor. “Tell me,” Conway insisted.
“Found the car a little over an hour ago. Then they discovered her, on the floor, covered with a coat. She’d been strangled.” The detective seemed to have finished.
“But — what else? I mean, how did it happen — and when? Tell me.”
The detective rose. “There’s no use your getting all upset when we don’t even know for sure if it’s her. You come along now — then if it is — well, we’ll talk about it.”
Conway looked at him for a moment, trying to assay how much the detective was withholding. The eyes were guileless, but he might be acting, too. “I’ll get a tie and my coat,” Conway said. “I’ll be right down.”
A uniformed patrolman was at the wheel, and Conway and Larkin sat in the back for the long ride downtown. They drove for some time in silence, with Conway staring out the window. That, he was sure, was all right — normal behavior. But he was conscious that the detective was eying him from time to time, and he had to make another effort.
“Isn’t there anything else you can tell me?” Conway asked. “No clues? Nothing?”
“Not yet. Time we get downtown, they might have something.”
“When did it happen? How long had she been—?” He stopped himself, remembering that, in fiction at least, the bereaved next of kin were always unable to utter the word “dead.”
“Don’t know yet.”
Conway turned and again stared out the window. So the police had not yet got to the couple who had been on the porch. Or perhaps Detective Larkin simply hadn’t been told about it. If the car had been found only an hour ago, there had been little time for investigation. He was chilled momentarily at the realization of how important that couple were to him: they were the crucial figures in his whole scheme, for it was they who had to establish when the car had been parked. And that, in turn, was what Conway counted on to prove — if it had to be proved — that the man who had parked the car could not have been himself. But he refused to be alarmed; he enjoyed the sense of relief that the waiting was over.
The session at the Morgue was mercifully brief. He steeled himself before they went in; someone lifted the cloth which covered her face, he nodded, and then they were in an office. He signed some forms, and they went out to the street and got into the car.
“We’ll go over to Headquarters now,” Larkin said. “They’ll want to get all the information you can give ’em.”
Conway was inwardly, as well as outwardly, calm when they went through the door lettered HOMICIDE BUREAU. He was ushered into a private office, and there Larkin introduced him, quite formally, to two plainclothesmen, a lieutenant in uniform, and Captain Ramsden, Chief of the Homicide Bureau. Almost immediately the door opened and a youngish man, who looked like a salesman and a none too successful one, entered.
“This is Mr. Conway, Sergeant Bauer,” Ramsden said. Bauer acknowledged the introduction, took a small notebook from his pocket, and sat down at the side of the captain’s desk.
They asked Conway to tell everything that had happened from the time Helen and he had left the house to go to the movie, and he did. The story was not too pat; he would skip some detail, then remember it a little later, and fit it in chronologically. He was not too accurate about times; he knew they could, and would, check those later. He made it very clear that their marital life was completely happy. He gave the names of their few acquaintances and friends; he knew of no enemies. They asked further questions about parts of his account, and he repeated or enlarged on what he had already told them.
After a little more than an hour, Captain Ramsden rose from his desk.
“I guess that’s about all we can do here now,” he said. “We’ll want your fingerprints, or course. After you get them, Sergeant, you’d better take Mr. Conway out to the parking lot and go over the ground with him.”
Conway broke in. “Can’t you tell me anything, Captain? Any clues? Any suspects? It won’t bring her back, I know, but I’d hate to see whoever did this get away with it.”
“I can understand how you feel. But it’s too soon yet to have anything much. The car was found over on Fulton Street, about three miles from the theatre. One of our squad cars recognized the license as being on the stolen car list, then they found the body. A girl, a Miss — er—”
“Elsie Daniels,” Bauer prompted.
“Yes — was sitting on the porch Monday evening—”
“With her boy friend, Fred Bissell,” Bauer added.
“Yes — when the car was left there.” Conway surmised that that was the extent of Ramsden’s information, for the captain turned to Bauer. “Have you talked to her yet?”
“Sure,” said Bauer, with the air of a man about to take his rightful place at the center of the stage. “We can nail down the time within a couple minutes.” Conway glowed inwardly: this was more than he had hoped for. “They’d been listening to some music on the radio, and then Senator Taft came on. They took a couple minutes of that, and then she went in and switched over to another station. She came back out on the porch and just barely sat down when they heard this scraping noise, and noticed the car parking. Then he—”
“Wait a minute,” Ramsden interrupted. “Senator Taft was on at ten o’clock Monday night — I listened to him myself.”
“I didn’t have time to check it yet,” Bauer said.
“That’s when it was,” Ramsden said. “Somebody introduced him — short introduction, no more than a minute, and then he started speaking. So if she says they listened for a couple of minutes — well, it must have been between ten-two and, say, ten-five.”
“Yeah,” said Bauer, and Conway was unable to tell whether he was disgruntled because of the captain’s firsthand information, or merely because he had been interrupted. “Anyhow,” Bauer continued, “the guy started away from the car, and then went back and locked the door. Then he just walked off.”
“Any description?” Ramsden asked.
“Well, for once it’s not that medium-size guy in a dark suit. He had a dark suit, all right, but at least we got a little something to go on. She says he had a mustache, and was stoop-shouldered, almost hunchbacked.”
Conway was conscious that every pair of eyes in the room had been turned on him as Bauer spoke.
“That’s more than we usually get on one of these cases,” Ramsden said. Conway realized that the remark was addressed to him, and in a more friendly tone than Ramsden had used previously. He also had a moment of sympathy for every round-shouldered man in Los Angeles County, a good many of whom, he knew, would find themselves in the police line-up in the course of the next week.
“And that’s all?” he asked.
“All so far,” Bauer said.
“We’ll have something in the next day or so,” Ramsden said. “We’ve got a good man in charge of this case, Mr. Conway.” He indicated the sergeant. “Sergeant Lester R. Bauer. The R. stands for Right.” He and the lieutenant laughed; the others, who were evidently outranked by Bauer, permitted themselves no more than smiles, and Conway’s face betrayed the fact that he did not get the joke. “ ‘Right’ Bauer,” the captain explained patiently. “You’ll understand if you see much of him.”
Bauer obviously was not amused, and had started for the door when Ramsden stopped him. “Wait a minute, Sergeant,” he said, and turned to Conway. “There’s probably a flock of reporters out there. You’ve had a pretty bad couple of hours — if you don’t feel like facing them right now, the sergeant could take you down the back way, and you’ll miss them.”