MURDER AT BRIDGE
A Mystery Novel
Author of "Murder Backstairs"
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York Set up and electrotyped. Published February, 1931. Reprinted March, April, 1931; February, 1932. Printed in the United States of America
For ARLINE AND F. HUGH HERBERT
Bonnie Dundee stretched out a long and rather fine pair of legs, regarding the pattern of his dark-blue socks with distinct satisfaction; then he rested his black head against the rich upholstery of an armchair not at all intended for his use.
His cheerful blue eyes turned at last—but not too long a last—to the small, upright figure seated at a typewriter desk in the corner of the office.
"Good morning, Penny," he called out lazily, and good-humoredly waited for the storm to break.
"Miss Crain—to you!" The flying fingers did not stop an instant, but Dundee noticed with glee that the slim back stiffened even more rigidly and that there was a decided toss of the brown bobbed head.
"But Penny is so much more like you," Dundee protested, unruffled. "And why should I be forced always to think of you as a long-legged bird, when even our mutual boss, District Attorney William S. Sanderson, has the privilege of calling you what you are—a bright and shining new penny?"
"I've known Bill Sanderson since I was born," the unseen lips informed him truculently, even as the unseen fingers continued their fiercely staccato typing.
"Ah! That explains a lot!" Dundee conceded handsomely. "I just wondered, amidst all this bonhommie of 'Bill' and 'Penny,' why I—"
"I only call Mr. Sanderson 'Bill' when I forget!" the small creature defended herself sharply. "Goodness knows I try to be an efficient private secretary! And I could be a lot more efficient if lazy strangers didn't plump themselves down in our best visitors' chair, and try to flirt with me. I don't flirt! Do you hear?—I don't flirt with anybody!"
"Flirt with you, you funny little Penny?" Dundee's voice was a little sad, the voice of a man who finds himself grievously misunderstood. "I only want you to like me, if you can, and be a little nice to me, for after all I—"
"Oh, I know!" Penny Crain jerked the finished letter from her typewriter and spun about on her narrow-backed swivel chair to face him. "I know you are 'Mr. James F. Dundee, Special Investigator attached to the office of the District Attorney,' and that you have a right to drive me crazy if you want to."
"Crazy?" Dundee was genuinely amazed, contrite. "I beg your pardon most humbly, Miss Crain. I'll go back to my cell—"
"Your office is almost as big and nice as this one," Penny retorted, but her sharp, bright brown eyes—really almost the color of a new penny—softened until they took on a velvety depth.
Dundee did not fail to notice the softening, nor did the little heart-shaped face, with its low widow's-peak, its straight, short nose, and its pointed little chin, made almost childish by the deep cleft which cut through its obvious effort to look mature and determined, fail to please him any more acutely than on the other days of the one short week he had been privileged at intervals to gaze upon it.
"But the files, and—other things—are in this office," he told her, his blue eyes twinkling happily once more.
"Don't you dare touch my files again!" Penny cried, springing to her feet and running toward the wall which was completely concealed by drawers, cabinets and shelves, filled with the records of which she was the proud custodian. "That's why I said just now that you were driving me crazy. Thursday you took a whole folder of correspondence out of the letter files and put it back under the wrong initial. I had to hunt for it for two hours, with Bill—I mean, Mr. Sanderson—gnawing his nails with impatience. He thought I had filed it wrong, and you might have made me lose my job."
Unconsciously her slightly husky contralto voice had sunk lower and trembled audibly.
"I'm awfully sorry. I shan't touch your files again, Miss Crain."
"Oh—go on and call me Penny," she conceded impatiently. "What do you want now?... And you can get anything you need out of the files if you'll just put the folder in the bottom drawer of my desk, so that I can file it myself—correctly!"
"Thank you, Penny," Bonnie Dundee said gravely. "I'd like awfully to have the complete transcript of 'The State versus Maginty.' Mr. Sanderson is determined to get a conviction where our former district attorney most ingloriously failed. The new trial comes up in two weeks, and he wants me to try to uncover a missing link of evidence."
"I know," she nodded, and stretched her short, slender body to pull down the two heavy volumes he required.
Without a by-your-leave, Special Investigator Dundee resumed his comfortable seat, and laid the first of the volumes open upon his knees. But he did not seem to take a great deal of interest in the impanelling of jurors in the case of one Rufus Maginty, who had won the temporary triumph of a "hung jury" under the handling of the state's case by District Attorney Sherwood, deposed in November's election.
Rather, his eyes followed the small, brisk figure of Miss Penelope Crain, as it moved about the room, and his ears listened to the somehow charming though emphatic tapping of her French heels.... French heels! Hadn't she been wearing sensible, Cuban-heeled Oxfords all other days of this first week of his "attachment" to the district attorney's office?... Cunning little thing, for all her thorniness and her sharpness with him, which he now saw that he had deserved.... Pretty, too.... Damned pretty!... What color was that dress of hers?... Ummm, let's see ... Chartreuse, didn't they call it? Chartreuse with big brown dots in it. Bet it was sleeveless under that short little jacket of golden-brown chiffon velvet.... By Jove—and Dundee lapsed into one of the Englishisms he had picked up during his six months' work in England as a tyro in the records department of Scotland Yard, before he had come to Hamilton to make a humble beginning as a cub detective on the Homicide Squad—yes, by Jove, she was all dressed up, for some reason or other.
"Of course! Because it's Saturday and you have the afternoon off!" Dundee finished his reverie aloud, to the astonishment of the small person trying to reach a file drawer just a little too high for her. "I mean," he hastened to explain, "that I've just noticed how beautiful your costume is, and found a reason for it."
There was sudden color in the creamy face. The French heels tapped an angry progress across the big office, and Penny sat down abruptly in her swivel chair, reached across the immaculate desk, snatched up a morning paper and tossed it, without a glance, in the general direction of her tormentor.
"Page three, column two, first item," she informed him ungraciously, and then began to search with a funny sort of desperation for more work to consume her extraordinary energy.
Bonnie Dundee grinned indulgently as he opened The Hamilton Morning News and turned to the specified page and column.
"Ah! My old friend, the 'society editress,' in her very best style," he commented as he began to read aloud:
"'Mrs. Juanita Selim, new and charming member, is entertaining the Forsyte Alumnae Bridge Club this afternoon, luncheon to be served at the exclusive new Breakaway Inn on Sheridan Road—'"
"I've read it—and I'm busy, so shut up!" Penny commanded, as she gathered up pencils to sharpen.
Quite meekly, Bonnie Dundee subsided into silent perusal of an item he was sure could have no possible interest for himself, in either a personal or professional capacity, unless Penny's name was in it somewhere:
"—after which the jolly party of young matrons and maids will adjourn to Mrs. Selim's delightful home in the Primrose Meadows Addition." He chuckled, and dared to interrupt the high importance of pointing-up pencils. "I say, that's funny, isn't it?... 'Primrose Meadows Addition'!"
"I don't think it's funny," Penny retorted coldly. "It so happens that my mother named it, that my father went into bankruptcy trying to make a go of it, and that 'Mrs. Selim's delightful home' was built to be our home, and in which we were fortunate enough to live only two months before the crash came."
"Oh!" Dundee groaned. "Penny, Penny! I'm dreadfully sorry."
"Shut up!" she ordered, but her voice was huskier than ever with tears.
Dundee's now thoroughly interested eyes raced down the absurdly written paragraphs:
"Although not an alumna of that famous and select school for girls, Forsyte-on-the-Hudson, graduation from which places any Hamilton girl in the very inner circle of Hamilton society, Mrs. Selim has been closely identified with the school, having for the past two years directed and staged Forsyte's annual play which ushers in the Easter vacation.
"Indeed it was Mrs. Selim's remarkable success with this year's play which caused Mrs. Peter Dunlap, long interested in a Little Theater for Hamilton, to induce the beautiful and charming young directress to come to Hamilton with her. Plans for the Little Theater are growing apace, and it is safe to conjecture that not all the conversation flying thick and fast about 'Nita's' bridge tables this afternoon will be concerned with contract 'conventions,' scores, and finesses which failed.
"Lovely 'Nita' was elected to membership a fortnight ago, when a vacancy occurred, due to the resignation of Miss Alice Humphrey, who has gone abroad for a year's study in the Sorbonne. The two-table club now includes: Mesdames Hugo Marshall, Tracey A. Miles, Peter Dunlap, John C. Drake, Juanita Selim, and Misses Polly Beale, Janet Raymond, and Penelope Crain."
Dundee lowered the paper and stared at the profile of District Attorney Sanderson's private secretary. So she was a "society girl," a "Forsyte" girl! Was that the reason, perhaps, why she had been so thorny with him, a mere "dick"? Well, he wasn't just a dick any longer. He was a Special Investigator ... A society girl, playing at work....
But there was more, and he read on: "As is well known, the 'girls' have their 'hen-fight' bridge-luncheon every Saturday afternoon from the first of October to the first of June, and a bridge-dinner, in which mere men are graciously included, every other Wednesday evening during the season. Mr. and Mrs. Tracey A. Miles are scheduled as next Wednesday's host and hostess."
"I take off my hat to your 'society editress'," Dundee commented with false cheerfulness, when he had laid the paper back upon Penny's desk. "She makes half a column of this one item in what must be a meager Saturday bunch of 'Society Notes,' then writes it all over again, in the past tense, for an equally meager Monday column.... Like bridge, Miss Crain?"
Penny snatched up the paper and crushed it into her wastebasket. "I do! And I like my old friends, even if I am not able, financially, to keep up with them.... If that's why you've suddenly decided to stop being—comrades—"
"Please forgive me again, Penny," he begged gently.
"I was born into that crowd, and I still belong to it, because all of them are my real friends, but get this into your thick Scotch-Irish head, Mr. Dundee—I'm working because I have to, and—and because I love it, too, and because I want to earn enough before I'm many years older to give Mother some of the things she's missing so dreadfully since—since my father failed and—and ran away."
"Ran away?" Dundee echoed incredulously. How could any man desert a daughter like this!
"Yes! Ran away!" she repeated fiercely. "I might as well tell you myself. Plenty of others will be willing to, as soon as they know you are—my friend.... As I told you, my father"—her voice broke—"my father went bankrupt, but before the courts knew it he had sent some securities to a—to a woman in New York, and when he—left us, he went to her, because he left Mother a note saying so. His defrauded creditors here have tried to—to catch him, but they haven't—yet—"
Very gently Bonnie Dundee took the small hand that was distractedly rumpling the brown waves which swept back from the widow's-peak. It lay fluttering in his bigger palm for a moment, then snatched itself away.
"I won't have you feeling sorry for me!" she cried angrily.
"Who owns your—the Primrose Meadows house now?—Mrs. Selim?" he asked.
"The 'lovely Nita'?" Her voice was scornful. "No. She rents it from Judge Hugo Marshall—or is supposed to pay him rent," she added with a trace of malice. "Hugo is an old darling, but he is fearfully weak where pretty women are concerned. Nita Selim had known Hugo in New York—somehow—and as soon as Lois—Mrs. Dunlap, I mean—had got Nita off the train, the stranger in our midst hied herself to Hugo's office and he's been tagging after her ever since.... Though most of the men in our crowd are as bad as or worse than poor old Hugo. How Karen keeps on looking so blissfully happy—"
"Karen?" Dundee interrupted.
"Mrs. Hugo Marshall," she explained impatiently. "Karen Plummer made her debut a year ago this last winter—a darling of a girl. Judge Marshall—retired judge, you know—had been proposing to the prettiest girl in each season's crop of debs for the last twenty years, and Hugo must have been the most nonplussed 'perennial bachelor' who ever led a grand march when Karen snapped him up.... Loved him—actually! And it seems to have worked out marvelously.... A baby boy three months old," she concluded in her laconic style. Then, ashamed; "I don't know why I'm gossiping like this!"
"Because you can't find another blessed scrap of work to do, you little efficiency fiend," Dundee laughed, "Come on! Gossip some more. My Maginty case will wait till afternoon, to be mulled over while you're losing your hard-earned salary at bridge with rich women."
"We don't play for high stakes," she corrected him. "Just a twentieth of a cent a point, though contract can run into money even at that. The winnings all go to the Forsyte Scholarship Fund. On Wednesday evenings the crowd plays for higher stakes—a tenth—and winners keepers. Therefore I can't afford to go, unless I sink so low as to let my escort pay my losses—which I sometimes do," she confessed, her brown head low for a moment.
"Is this Mrs. Peter Dunlap a deep-bosomed club woman, who starts Movements?" he asked, more to bring her out of her depression than anything else. "Bigger and Better Babies Movements, and Homes for Fallen Girls, and Little Theater Movements?"
The brown head flung itself up sharply, and the brown eyes hardened into bright pennies again. "Lois Dunlap is the sweetest, finest, most comfortable woman in Hamilton, and I adore her—as does everyone else, Peter Dunlap hardly more than the rest of us. She is interested in a Little Theater for Hamilton, but she won't manage it. That's why she got hold of Nita Selim. Lois will simply put up barrels of money, without missing them, and give a grand job to a little Broadway gold-digger. Funny thing is, she really delights in Nita. Thinks she's sweet and has never had a real chance."
"And what do you think?" Dundee asked softly.
"Oh—I suppose I'm a cat, but I can see through her so clearly. Not that she's bad; she's simply an opportunist. She's awfully sweet and deferential and 'frank' with women, but with men—well, she simply tucks her head so that her shoulder-length black curls fall forward enchantingly, gives them one wistful smile out of her big eyes that are like black pansies and—the clink of slave chains!... Now go on and think I'm catty, which I suppose I am!"
Bonnie Dundee grinned at her reassuringly. Not for him to explain that practically all women and many men found themselves "gossiping" when he led them on adroitly, for reasons of his own. Which of course helped make him the excellent detective he was.
"So all the men in your crowd have fallen for Nita Selim, have they?"
"Practically all, in varying degrees, except Peter Dunlap, who has never looked at another woman since he was lucky enough to get Lois, and Clive Hammond, who's engaged to Polly Beale," Penny answered reluctantly, her color high.
"Including your young man?"
"I haven't a 'young man,' in the sense of being engaged," Penny retorted, then added honestly: "I have been letting Ralph Hammond—that's Clive's brother, you know—take me about a good deal.... Ralph and Clive have plenty of money," she defended herself hastily. "They are architects, Clive being the head of the firm and Ralph, who hasn't been out of college so very long, a junior partner. It was the Hammond firm that drew up the plans for Dad's—I mean, my father's—Primrose Meadows Addition houses. He had our house built as a sort of show-place, you know, so that prospective builders out there could see how artistic a home could be put up for a moderate sum of money. But he didn't quite finish even that—left half the gabled top story unfinished, and Nita has been teasing Hugo to finish it up for her. It looks," she added with a shrug, "as if Nita will get what she wants—as usual."
"And Ralph has acquired a set of slave chains?" Dundee suggested, with just the slightest note of sympathy.
"And how!" Penny assured him, grimly. "A simile as out-of-date as my clothes are going to be if I don't get some new ones soon. Not that the crowd minds what I wear," she added loyally. "I could dress up in a window drape—"
"And be just as charming as you are in that grand new party dress you have on now," Dundee finished for her gallantly.
"New!" Penny snorted and turned back to her desk in a futile effort to find something left undone.
Dundee ignored the rebuff. "How many suckers—I mean, how many gentlemen with moderate incomes actually built in Primrose Meadows?"
"You are inquisitive, aren't you?... None! Our house, or rather the one Nita Selim is living in now, is the only house on what used to be a big farm.... Why?"
"I was just wondering," Dundee said softly, almost absent-mindedly, "why the 'lovely Nita' chose so isolated a place in which to live, when Hamilton has rather a large number of 'For Rent' signs out just now.... By the way, know what time it is now?... Twenty to one! Get your hat on, young woman. I'm going to drive you out to Breakaway Inn."
"You're not! I'm going to take a bus. One runs from the Square right past the Inn," she told him firmly.
And just as firmly Dundee escorted her out of the almost deserted, rather dirty old courthouse to where his brand-new sports roadster—bought "on time"—was awaiting them in the parking space devoted to the motors of those who officially served Hamilton County.
"I know why you want to drive me out to the Inn," Penny told him suddenly, as the proud owner maneuvered his car through Saturday noon traffic. "You want to see Nita Selim. Clank! Clank! I can hear the padlocks snapping on the slave chains right now."
"Meow!" Dundee retorted, then grinned down at her with as much comradely affection as if they had been friends for years instead of for a couple of hours. "Is Nita very small?" he added.
"Little enough to tuck herself under the arm of a man a lot shorter than you," Penny assured him with curious vehemence. "And if Penelope Crain is no mean prophet, that's exactly what she'll do within five minutes after she meets you—just as she is wistfully inviting you to join the other men for the cocktail party which is scheduled to break up the bridge game at 5:30. Then, of course, you'll be urged to join us all at the dinner-dance at the Country Club tonight."
"Will she?" Dundee pretended to be vastly intrigued, which caused the remainder of the drive to be a rather silent one, due to Penny's unresponsiveness.
Breakaway Inn was intensely Spanish in architecture and transplanted shrubbery, but its stucco walls were of a rather more violent raspberry color than is considered quite esthetic in Spain or Mexico.
"There's Lois Dunlap's car just driving up," Penny cried, her face softening with the adoration she had freely professed for her friend. But it clouded again almost instantly. "And Nita Selim. I suppose Nita was a little ashamed to drive up in her own Ford coupe."
As Dundee helped his new friend to alight his eyes were upon the two women being assisted by a uniformed chauffeur from Lois Dunlap's limousine.
In a moment the four were a laughing, exclamatory group.
"Oh, what a tall, grand man you've got yourself, Penny darling!" the tiny, beautiful creature who could only be Mrs. Selim cried out happily. "May I meet him?"
"I shouldn't let you," Penny answered frankly, "but I will.... Mrs. Selim, Mr. Dundee.... And Mrs. Dunlap, Mr. Dundee.... How are you, Lois? And Peter and the brats?"
"All well, Penny. Petey's off on a week-end fishing trip, and not one of the brats has measles, scarlet fever or hay fever, thank God," Dundee heard Mrs. Dunlap say in the comfortable, affectionate voice that went with her comfortable, pleasant face and body.... Nice woman!
But his eyes were of necessity upon Nita Selim, for that miniature Venus was, as Penny had predicted, almost tucked under his arm by this time, her black-pansy eyes wide and wistful, her soft black curls falling forward as she coaxed:
"You'll come to the cocktail party at my house at 5:30, won't you, Mr. Dundee?"
"Afraid I can't make it," Dundee smiled down at her. "I'm a busy man, Mrs. Selim.... You see, I'm Special Investigator attached to the District Attorney's office," he explained very deliberately.
"O-o-oh!" Nita Selim breathed. Than, step by step, she withdrew, so that he was no longer submitted to the temptation to put his arm about her too intriguing little body. And as she retreated, Dundee's keen eyes noted a hardening of the black-pansy eyes, the sudden throbbing of a pulse in her very white neck....
"No, don't mind about calling for me," Penny protested a moment later. "Ralph has already volunteered.... Thanks awfully!"
As Dundee backed out of the driveway his last glance was for a very small figure in a brown silk summer coat and palest yellow chiffon frock, slowly rejoining Penelope Crain and Lois Dunlap. What the devil had frightened her so? For she had been almost terrified.... Of course she might be one of those silly women who shudder at the sight of a detective, because they've smuggled in a diamond from Paris or a bottle of Bacardi from Havana....
But long before his car made the distance back to the city Dundee had shrugged off the riddle and was concentrating on all the facts he knew regarding the Maginty case. It was his first real assignment from Sanderson, and he was determined to make good.
Four hours later he was interrupted in his careful reading of the trial of Rufus Maginty by the ringing of the telephone bell. That made four times he had had to snap out the fact that District Attorney Sanderson was playing some well-earned golf on the Country Club links, Dundee reflected angrily, as he picked up the receiver.
But the call was for Dundee himself, and the voice on the other end of the wire was Penny Crain's, although almost unrecognizable.
"Speak more slowly, Penny!" Dundee urged. "What's that again.... Good Lord! You say that Nita Selim...."
After a minute of listening, and a promise of instant obedience, Dundee hung up the receiver.
"My God!" he said slowly, blankly. "Of all things—murder at bridge!"
As Special Investigator Dundee drove through the city of Hamilton at a speed of sixty miles an hour, his way being cleared by traffic policemen warned by the shrill official siren which served him as a horn, he had little time to think connectedly of the fact that Nita Selim had been murdered during a bridge game in her rented home in Primrose Meadows.
Even after the broad sleekness of Sheridan Road stretched before him he could do little more than try to realize the shock which had numbed him.... "Lovely Nita," as the society editor of The Morning News had called her, was—dead! How, why, he did not know. He had asked no details of Penny Crain.... Funny, thorny little Penny! Loyal little Penny!
"Judge Marshall has telephoned Police Headquarters," she had told him breathlessly over the telephone, "but I made him let me call you as soon as he had hung up. I wanted our office to be in on this right from the first."
Beautiful, seductive Nita Selim, almost cuddling under his arm within three minutes of meeting him—dead! A vision of her black-pansy eyes, so wide and luminous and wistful as they had looked sideways and upward to his, pleading for him to join her after-bridge cocktail party, nearly made him crash into a lumbering furniture van. Those eyes were luminous no longer, could never again snap the padlocks of slave chains upon any man—as Penny had expressed it.... Dead! And she had been so warmly alive, even as she had retreated from him at his mention of the fact that he was attached to the office of the district attorney as a special investigator. What had she feared then? Was her death a payment for some recent or long-standing crime? Or had she simply been withdrawing from contamination with a "flat-foot"?... No! She had been afraid—horribly afraid of some ulterior purpose behind his innocent courtesy in driving Penelope Crain to Breakaway Inn.
Well, speculation now was idle, he told himself, as he noted that his speedometer had dropped from sixty to thirty in his preoccupation. He speeded again, but was soon forced to stop and ask his way into Primrose Meadows. The vague directions of a farmer's son lost him nearly eight precious minutes, during which his friend, Captain Strawn of the Homicide Squad, might be bungling things rather badly. But at last he found the ornate pair of pillars spanned by the painted legend, "Primrose Meadows," and drove through them into what soon became a rutted lane. Almost a quarter of a mile from the entrance he found the isolated house, unmistakable because of the line-up of private cars parked before the short stretch of paved sidewalk, and the added presence of police cars and motorcycles.
Dundee turned his own car into the driveway leading from the street along the right side of the house toward the two-car garage in the rear. Ahead of his roadster were two other cars, and a glance toward the open garage showed that a Ford coupe was housed there.
As he was descending Captain Strawn's voice hailed him from an open window of the room nearest the garage.
"Hello, Bonnie! Been expecting you.... Damnedest business you ever saw.... There's a door from this room onto the porch. Hop up and come on in."
Dundee obeyed. Driving in he had noted that a wide porch, upheld by round white pillars, stretched across the front of the gabled brick house and extended halfway along its right side, past a room which was obviously a solarium, with its continuous windows, gay awnings, and—visible through the glittering panes—orange-and-black wicker furniture.
It was easy to swing himself up to the floor of the porch. Strawn flung open the door which led into the back room, remarking with a grin:
"Don't be afraid I'm gumming up any fingerprints. Carraway has already been over the room.... The Selim woman's bedroom," he explained. "The room she was killed in."
"You have been on the job," Dundee complimented his former chief.
"Sure!" Strawn acknowledged proudly. "Can't be too quick on our stumps when it's one of these 'high sassiety' murders. Dr. Price will be here any minute now, and my men have been all over the premises, basement to attic. Of course it was an outside job—plain as the nose on your face—and we haven't found a trace of the murderer."
Although Mrs. Selim had taken the house furnished, it was obvious that this big bedroom of hers was not exactly as the Crain family had left it. A little too pretty, a little too aggressively feminine, with its chaise longue heaped with silk and lace pillows, its superfluity of big and little lamps, its bed draped with golden-yellow taffeta, its dressing table—
But he could not let critical eyes linger on the triple-mirrored vanity dresser. For on the bench before it sat a tiny figure, the head bowed so low that some of the black curls had fallen into a large open bowl of powder. She was no longer wearing the brown silk summer coat whose open front had given him a glimpse of pale yellow chiffon.
He saw the dress now, a low-cut, sleeveless, fluffy affair, but he really had eyes only for the brownish-red hole on the left side of the back of the bodice, about halfway between shoulder and waist—a waist so small he could have spanned it with his two hands, including its band of fuchsia velvet ribbon. There also had been a bow of fuchsia velvet ribbon on the lace and straw hat she had swung so charmingly less than five hours ago.
"Shot through the heart, I guess," Strawn commented. "Took a good marksman to find her heart, shooting her through the back.... Funny thing, too. Nobody heard the shot—leastways none of that crowd penned up in the living room will admit they did. They'll all hang together, and lie like sixty to keep us from finding out anything that might point to one of their precious bunch! But if a gun with a Maxim silencer was used, as it must have been if that whole crew ain't lying, the gunman musta been good, because you can't sight with a Maxim screwed onto a rod, you know."
"Have your men found the gun?" Dundee asked.
"Of course not, or I'd know whether it had a Maxim on it or not," Strawn retorted. "My theory is," he added impressively, "that somebody with a grudge against this dame hired a gunman to hang around till he got her dead to rights, then—plop!" and he imitated the soft, thudding sound made by the discharge of a bullet from a gun equipped with a silencer.
"Doesn't it seem rather strange that a professional gunman should have chosen such a time—with men arriving in cars, and the house full of women who might wander into this room at any minute—to bump off his victim?" Dundee asked.
"Well, there ain't no other explanation," Captain Strawn contended. "Outside of the fact that my men have gone over the whole house and grounds without finding the gun, I've got other evidence it was an outside job.... Look!"
Dundee followed the Chief of the Homicide Squad to one of the two windows that looked out upon the driveway. Both were open, since the May day was exceptionally warm, even for the Middle West. The unscreened window from which he obediently leaned was almost directly in line with the vanity dressing-table across the room.
"Look! See how them vines have been torn," Strawn directed, pointing to a rambler rose which hugged the outside frame of the window. "And look hard enough at the flower bed down below and you'll see his footprints.... Of course we've measured them and Cain, as you see, is guarding them till my man comes to make plaster casts of them.... Yes, sir, he hoisted himself up to the window ledge, aimed as best he could, then slipped down and beat it across the meadow."
"Then," Dundee began slowly, "I wonder why Mrs. Selim didn't see that figure crouched in the window, since she must have been powdering her face and looking into the middle of the three mirrors—the one which reflects this very window?"
"How do you know she was powdering her face, not looking for something in a drawer?" Strawn demanded truculently.
"For three reasons," Dundee answered almost apologetically. "First: her powder puff, as I'm sure you noticed, is still clutched in her right hand; second: there is no drawer open, and no drawer was open, unless someone has closed it since the murder, whereas on the other hand her powder box is open; third: the left side of her face is unevenly coated with powder, while the other is heavily but evenly powdered. Therefore I can't see why she didn't scream, or turn around when she heard your gunman clambering up to her window, or even when he had crouched in it. I don't see how she could help seeing him!"
"Well—what do you think?" Strawn asked sourly, after he had tested the visibility of the window from the dressing-table mirror.
"I'm afraid, Captain Strawn, that there are only two explanations possible. The first, of course, is that Nita Selim was quite deaf or very nearsighted. I happen to know from having met her today—"
"You met her today?" Strawn interrupted incredulously.
Dundee explained briefly, then went on: "As I was saying I have good reason to know she was not deaf, but I can't say as to her being nearsighted, except that it is my observation that people who are extremely nearsighted do not have very wide eyes and no creases between the brows. I am fairly sure she did not wear glasses at all, because glasses worn even a few hours a day leave a mark across the nose or show pinched red spots on each side of the bridge of the nose."
"You must have had a good hard look at her," Strawn gibed, his grey eyes twinkling, and his harsh, thin-lipped mouth pulling down at one corner in what he thought was a genial smile.
"I did," Dundee retorted. "Well, conceding that she was neither deaf nor half-blind, she would necessarily have heard and seen her assailant before he shot her."
"What's the other explanation?" Strawn was becoming impatient.
"That the person who killed her was so well known to her, and his—or her—presence in this room so natural a thing that she paid no attention to his or her movements and was concentrating on the job of powdering her very pretty face."
"You mean—one of that gang of society folks in there?" and Strawn jerked a thumb toward the left side of the house.
"Very probably," Dundee agreed.
"But where's the gun?" Strawn argued. "I tell you my men—"
"This was a premeditated murder, of course," Dundee interrupted. "The Maxim silencer—unless they are all lying about not hearing a shot—proves that. Silencers are damned hard to get hold of, but people with plenty of money can manage most things. And since the murder was premeditated, it is better to count on the fact that the murderer—or murderess—had planned a pretty safe hiding place for the gun and the silencer.... Oh, not necessarily in the house or even near the house," he hastened to assure Strawn, who was trying to break in.... "By the way, how long after Mrs. Selim was killed was her death discovered? Or do you know?"
"I haven't been able to get much out of that bunch in there—not even out of Penelope Crain, who ought to be willing to help, seeing as how she works for the district attorney. But I guess she's waiting to spill it all to you, if she knows anything, so you and Sanderson will get all the credit."
"Now, look here, chief," Dundee protested, laying a hand on Strawn's shoulder as he reverted to the name by which he had addressed the head of the Homicide Squad for nearly a year, "we're going to be friends, aren't we? Same as always? We know pretty well how to work together, don't we? No use to begin pulling against each other."
"Guess so," Strawn growled, but he was obviously pleased and relieved. "Maybe you'd better have a crack at that crowd yourself. I hear Doc Price's car—always has a bum spark plug. I'll stick around with him until he gets going good on his job; then, if you'll excuse me for butting in, I'll join your party in the living room.... And good luck to you, Bonnie!"
Dundee took the door he knew must lead into the central hall, but found himself in an enclosed section of it—a small foyer between the main hall and Nita Selim's bedroom. There was room for a telephone table and its chair, as well as for a small sofa, large enough for two to sit upon comfortably. He paused to open the door across from the telephone table and found that it opened into a closet, whose hangers and hat forms now held the outdoor clothing belonging to Nita's guests. Nice clothes—the smart but unostentatious hats and coats of moneyed people of good taste, he observed a little enviously, before he opened the door which led into the main hall which bisected the main floor of the house until it reached Nita's room.
Another door in the section behind the staircase leading to the gabled second story next claimed his attention. Opening it, he discovered a beautifully fitted guests' lavatory. There was even a fully appointed dressing-table for women's use, so that none of her guests had had the slightest excuse to invade the privacy of Mrs. Selim's bedroom and bath, unless specifically invited to do so. Rather a well planned house, this, Dundee concluded, as he closed the door upon the green porcelain fixtures, and walked slowly toward the wide archway that led from the hall into a large living room.
He had a curious reluctance to intrude upon that assembled and guarded company of Hamilton's "real society." They were all Penny's friends, and Penny was his friend....
But his first swift, all-seeing glance about the room reassured him. No hysterics here. These people brought race and breeding even into the presence of death. Whatever emotions had torn them when Nita Selim's body was discovered were almost unguessable now. A stout, short woman of about thirty was tapping a foot nervously, as she talked to the man who was bending over her chair. John C. Drake, that was. Dundee had met him, knew him to be a vice president of the Hamilton National Bank, in charge of the trust department. Penelope Crain was occupying half of a "love-seat" with Lois Dunlap, the hands of the girl and of the woman clinging together for mutual comfort. That tall, thin, oldish man, with the waxed grey mustache, must be Judge Hugo Marshall, and the pretty girl leaning trustingly against his shoulder must be his wife—Karen Marshall, who had jumped at her first proposal during her first season.
"Yes, well-bred people," he concluded, as his eyes swept on, and then stopped, a little bewildered. Who was that man? He didn't belong somehow, and his hands trembled visibly as he tried to light a cigarette. Leaning—not nonchalantly, but actually for support—against the brocaded coral silk drapes of a pair of wide, long windows set in the east wall. Suddenly Dundee had it.... Broadway! This was no Hamiltonian, no comfortably rich and socially secure Middle-westerner. Broadway in every line of his too-well-tailored clothes, in the polished smoothness of his dark hair....
"Why, it's Mr. Dundee at last!" Penny cried, turning in the S-shaped seat before he had time to finish his mental inventory of the room's occupants.
She jumped to her feet and threaded a swift way over Oriental rugs and between the two bridge tables, still occupying the center of the big room, still cluttered with score pads, tally cards, and playing cards.
"I've been wondering if you had stopped to have dinner first," she taunted him. Then, laying a hand on his arm, she faced the living room eagerly. "This is Mr. Dundee, folks—special investigator attached to the district attorney's office, and a grand detective. He solved the Hogarth murder case, you know, and the Hillcrest murder. And he's my friend, so I want you all to trust him—and tell him things without being afraid of him."
Then, rather ceremoniously but swiftly, she presented her friends—Judge and Mrs. Hugo Marshall, Mr. and Mrs. Tracey Miles, Mr. and Mrs. John C. Drake, Mrs. Dunlap, Janet Raymond, Polly Beale, Clive Hammond, and—
At that point Penny hesitated, then rather stiffly included the "Broadway" man, as "Mr. Dexter Sprague—of New York."
"Thank you, Miss Crain," Dundee said. "Now will you please tell me, if you know, whether all those invited to both the bridge party and the cocktail party are here?"
Penny's face flamed. "Ralph Hammond, Clive's brother, hasn't come yet.... I—I rather imagine I've been 'stood up,'" she confessed, with a faint attempt at gayety.
And Ralph Hammond was the man who had once belonged rather exclusively to Penny, and who, according to her own confession, had succumbed most completely to Nita Selim's charms!—Dundee noted, filing the reflection for further reference.
"Please, Mr. Dundee, won't you detain us as short a time as possible?" Lois Dunlap asked, as she advanced toward him. "Mr. Dunlap is away on a fishing trip, and I don't like to leave my three youngsters too long. They are really too much of a handful for the governess, over a period of hours."
"I shall detain all of you no longer than is absolutely necessary," Dundee told her gently, "but I am afraid I must warn you that I can't let you go home very soon—unless one or more of you has something of vital importance to tell—something which will clear up or materially help to clear up this bad business."
He paused a long half-minute, then asked curtly: "I am to conclude that no one has anything at all to volunteer?"
There was no answer, other than a barely perceptible drawing together in self-defence of the minds and hearts of those who had been friends for so long.
"Very well," Dundee conceded abruptly. "Then I must put all of you through a routine examination, since every one of you is, of course, a possible suspect."
"Good-by, dinner!" groaned the plump, blond little man who had been introduced as Tracey Miles, as he sorrowfully patted his rather prominent stomach.
"Don't worry, darling," begged the dark, neurotic-looking woman who was Flora Miles, his wife. "I'm sure Mr. Dundee will ask Lydia—poor Nita's maid, you know—" she explained in an aside to Dundee, "—to prepare a light supper for us if he really needs to detain us long—which I am sure he won't."
"How can you think of food now?" Polly Beale, the tall, sturdy girl with an almost masculine bob and a quite masculine tweed suit, demanded brusquely. Her voice had an unfeminine lack of modulation, but when Dundee saw her glance toward Clive Hammond he realized that she was wholly feminine where he was concerned, at least.
"Of course, we are all dreadfully cut up over poor Nita's—death," gasped a rather pretty girl, whose most distinguishing feature was her crop of crinkly, light-red hair.
"I assume that to be true, Miss Raymond," Dundee answered. "But we must lose no more time getting at the facts. Just when was Mrs. Selim murdered?"
At the brutal use of the word a shudder rippled over the small crowd. Dexter Sprague, "of New York," dropped his lighted cigarette where it would have burned a hole in a fine Persian rug, if Sergeant Turner, on guard over the room for Captain Strawn, had not slouched from his corner to plant a big foot upon it.
"We don't know exactly when it happened," Penny volunteered. "We were playing bridge, the last hand of the last rubber, because the men were arriving for cocktails, when Nita became dummy and went to her bedroom to—"
"To make herself 'pretty-pretty' for the men," Mrs. Drake mimicked; then, realizing the possible effect of her cattiness on Dundee, she defended herself volubly: "Of course I liked Nita, but she did think so terribly much about her effect on men—and all that, and was always fixing her make-up, and besides—you can't suspect me, because I was playing against Karen and Nita—"
"Thank you, Mrs. Drake," Dundee cut in. "Does anyone know the exact time Mrs. Selim left the room, when she became dummy?"
"I can tell you, because I had just arrived—the first of the men to get here," Tracey Miles volunteered, obviously glad of the chance to talk—a characteristic of the man, Dundee decided. "I looked at my watch just after I stepped out of my car, because I like to be on time to the dot, and Nita—Mrs. Selim—had said 5:30.... Well, it was exactly 5:25, so I had five minutes to spare."
"Yes?" Dundee speeded him up impatiently.
"Well, I came right into the hall, and hung my hat in the closet out there, and then came in here. It must have been about 5:27 by that time," he explained, with the meticulousness of a man on the witness stand. "I shouted, 'Hello, everybody! How's tricks?...' That's a joke, you know. 'How's tricks?'—meaning tricks in bridge—"
"Yes, yes," Dundee admitted, frowning, but the rest of the company exchanged indulgent smiles, and Flora Miles patted her husband's hand fondly.
"Well, Nita jumped up from the bridge table—that one right there," Miles pointed to the table nearer the arched doorway, "and she said, 'Good heavens! Is it half past five already? I've got to run and make myself 'pretty-pretty' for just such great big men as you, Tracey—"
"'Tracey, darling'!" Judge Marshall corrected, with a chuckle that sounded odd in the tensely silent room.
Tracey Miles flushed a salmon pink, and his wife's fingers clutched at his hand warningly. "Oh, Nita called everybody 'darling,' and didn't mean anything by it, I guess," he explained uneasily. "Just one of her cute little ways—. Well, anyway, she came up to me and straightened my necktie—another one of her funny little ways—and said, 'Tracey, my own lamb, won't you shake up the cocktails for poor little Nita?...' You know, a sort of way she had of coaxing people—"
"Yes, I know," Dundee agreed, with a trace of a grin. "Go on as rapidly as you can, please."
"I thought you wanted to know everything!" Miles was a little peevish; he had evidently been enjoying himself. "Of course I said I'd make the cocktails—she said everything was ready on the sideboard. That's the dining room right behind this room," he explained unnecessarily, since the French doors were open. "Well, Nita blew me a kiss from her fingertips, and ran out of the room.... Now, let's see," he ruminated, creasing his sunburned forehead beneath his carefully combed blond hair, "that must have been at exactly 5:30 that she left the room. I went on into the dining room, and Lois—I mean, Mrs. Dunlap came with me, because she said she was simply dying for a caviar sandwich and a nip of—of—"
"Of Scotch, Tracey," Lois Dunlap cut in, grinning. "I'm sure Mr. Dundee won't think I'm a confirmed tippler, so you might as well tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.... Poor Tracey has a deadly fear that we are all going to lose the last shred of our reputations in this deplorable affair, Mr. Dundee," she added in a rather shaky version of the comfortable, rich voice he had heard earlier in the day.
"I'm not going to pry into cellars," Dundee assured her in the same spirit. "What else, Mr. Miles?"
"Nothing much," Tracey Miles confessed, with apparent regret. "I was still mixing—no, I'd begun to shake the cocktails—when I heard a scream—"
"Whose scream?" Dundee demanded, looking about the room, and dismissing Miles thankfully.
"It was—I," Judge Marshall's fair-haired, blue-eyed little bride volunteered in a voice that threatened to rise to hysteria.
"Tell me all about it," Dundee urged gently.
"Yes, sir," she quavered, while her husband's arm encircled her shoulders in courtly fashion. "As Tracey told you, Nita was dummy, and I was declarer—that is, I got the bid, and played the hand. It—it was quite an exciting end for me to the afternoon of bridge, for I'm not usually awfully lucky, so when Penny had figured up the score, because I'm not good at arithmetic, and I knew Nita and I had rolled up an awfully big score, I jumped up and ran into her room to tell her the good news, because she hadn't come back. And—and—there she was—all bowed over her dressing-table, and she—she was—was—"
"She was dead when you reached her?" Dundee assisted her.
"Yes," Karen Marshall answered faintly, and turned to hide her face against her elderly husband's breast.
Dundee's swift eyes took in the varying degrees of whiteness and sick horror that claimed every face in the room as surely as if all present had not already heard Karen tell her story to Captain Strawn. Tracey Miles looked as if he would have no immediate craving for his dinner, and Judge Marshall's fine, thin face no longer looked so "well-preserved" as he prided himself that it did. As for Dexter Sprague, he almost folded up against the coral brocade draperies. It was the women, oddly enough, who kept the better control over their emotions.
"Of course you all rushed in when Mrs. Marshall screamed?" he asked casually.
Twelve heads nodded mutely.
"Did any or all of you touch the body, or things in the room?"
"Mr. Sprague touched her hair, and—and lifted one of her hands," Penny contributed quietly. "But you know how it must have been! We can't any of us tell exactly every move we made, but there was some rushing about. The men, mostly, looking for—for whoever did it—"
"Mrs. Marshall, did you see anyone—anyone at all—in or near that room when you entered it?"
The white-faced young wife lifted her head, and looked at him dazedly with drowned blue eyes. "There wasn't anyone in—in that room, I know," she faltered. "It felt horrible—being in there with—with her—all alone—"
"But near the room? In the main hall or in the little foyer where the telephone is?" Dundee persisted.
"I—don't think so ... I can't—remember—seeing anyone.... Oh, Hugo!" and again she crouched against her husband, who soothed her with trembling hands that looked incongruously old against her childish fair hair and face.
"Where were the rest of you—exactly where, I mean?" Dundee demanded, conscious that Captain Strawn had entered the room and was standing slightly behind him.
There was such a babel of answers, given and then hastily corrected, that Dundee broke in suddenly:
"I want a connected story of 'the events leading up to the tragedy.' And I want someone to tell it who hasn't lost his—or her—head at all." He looked about the company, as if speculatively, but his mind was already made up. "Miss Crain, will you tell the story, beginning with the moment I left you and Mrs. Dunlap and Mrs. Selim today?"
Penny nodded miserably and was about to begin.
"Just a minute, before you begin, Miss Crain," Dundee requested. "I'd like to make notes on your story," and he drew from a coat pocket a shorthand book, hastily filched from Penny's own tidy desk. "Yes," he answered the girl's frank stare of amazement, "I can write shorthand—of a sort, and pretty fast, at that, though no other human being, I am afraid, could read it but myself.... As for you folks," he addressed the uneasy, silent group of men and women in dead Nita's living room, "I shall ask you not to interrupt Miss Crain unless you are very sure that her memory is at fault."
Penelope Crain was about to begin for the second time, when again Dundee interrupted. "Another half second, please."
On the first sheet of the new shorthand notebook Dundee scribbled: "Suggest you try to locate Ralph Hammond immediately. Very much in love with Mrs. Selim. Invited to cocktail party; did not show up." Tearing the sheet from the notebook, he passed it to Captain Strawn, who read it, frowning, and then nodded.
"Doc Price has done all he can here," Strawn whispered huskily. "Wants to know if you'd like to speak to him before he takes the body to the morgue."
"Certainly," Dundee answered as he grinned apologetically to the girl who was waiting, white-faced but patiently, to tell the story of the afternoon.
Quickly suppressed shudders and low exclamations of horror followed him and the chief of the Homicide Squad from the room.
"Well, Bonnie boy, we meet again, for the usual reason," old Dr. Price greeted the district attorney's new special investigator. "Another shocking affair—that.... A nice clean wound, one of the neatest jobs I ever saw. Shot entered the back, and penetrated the heart.... Very nicely calculated. If the bullet had struck a quarter of an inch higher, it would have been deflected by the—"
"But the path of the bullet, doctor!" Dundee broke in. "Have you made any calculations as to the place and distance at which the shot was fired?"
"Roughly speaking—yes," the coroner answered. "The gun was fired at a distance, probably, of ten or fifteen feet—perhaps closer, but I don't think so," he amended meticulously. "As for the path of the bullet, I have fixed it, judging from the position of the body, which I am assured had not been moved before my arrival, as coming from a point somewhere along a straight line drawn from the wound, with the body upright, of course, to—here!"
Dundee and Strawn followed the brisk little white-haired old doctor across the bedroom to a window opening upon the drive—the one nearest the door leading out upon the porch.
"I've marked the end of the line here," Dr. Price went on, pointing to a faint pencil mark made upon the window frame—the pale-green strip of woodwork near the chaise longue, which was set between the two windows.
"I told you she was shot from the window!" Strawn reminded Dundee triumphantly. "You see, doc, it's my theory that the murderer climbed up to the sill of this window, which was open as it is now, crouched in it, and shot her while she sat there powdering her face."
"Not necessarily, Captain, not necessarily," Dr. Price deprecated. "I merely say that this pencil mark indicated the end of the line showing the path of the bullet. Certainly she was not shot through the frame of the window, but she might have been shot by anyone stationed just in front of it, or anywhere along the line, up to, say, within ten feet of the woman.... Now, if that's all, Captain, I'll be getting this corpse into the morgue for an autopsy. And I'll send you both a copy of my findings."
"Just a minute, Dr. Price," Dundee detained him. "How old would you say Mrs. Selim was?"
The little doctor pursed his wrinkled lips and considered for a moment, eyeing the body stretched upon the chaise longue speculatively.
"We-ell, between thirty and thirty-four years old," he answered finally. "Of course, you understand that that estimate is unofficial, and must remain so, until I have completed the autopsy—"
Dundee stared down at the upturned face of the dead woman with startled incredulity. Between thirty and thirty-four years old! That tiny, lovely—But she was not quite so lovely in death, in spite of the serenity it had brought to those once-vivacious features. Peering more closely, he could see—without those luminous, wide eyes to center his attention—numerous fine lines on the waxen face, the slackness of a little pouch of soft flesh beneath her round chin, an occasional white hair among the shoulder-length dark curls.... Dundee sighed. How easy it was for a beautiful woman to deceive men with a pair of wide, velvety black eyes! But he'd bet the women had not been quite so thoroughly taken in by her cuddly childishness, her odd mixture of demureness and youthful impudence!
Back in the living room, whose occupants stopped whispering and grew taut with suspense, Dundee seated himself at a little red-lacquer table, notebook spread, while Strawn settled himself heavily in the nearest overstuffed armchair.
"Now, Miss Crain, I am quite ready, if you will forgive me for having kept you waiting."
In a very quiet voice—slightly husky, as always—Penny began her story:
"I think it lacked two or three minutes of one o'clock when you drove away. Nita, Lois—do you mind if I use the names I am most accustomed to?... Thank you!—and I went immediately into the lounge of Breakaway Inn, where we found Carolyn Drake and Flora Miles waiting for us. Nita soon left us to see about the arrangement of the table, and while she was away the rest of the girls arrived."
"Except—" a woman's voice broke in.
"I was going to say all eight of us were ready for lunch except Polly Beale. She hadn't come," Penny went on, her husky voice a little sharp with annoyance. "When Nita came to ask us into the private dining room, one of the Inn's employees came and told her there was a call for her and showed her to the private booth in the lounge. In a minute Nita returned and told us that Polly wasn't coming to the luncheon, but would join us later for bridge here."
"Why don't you tell him how funny Nita acted?" Janet Raymond prompted.
Penny flushed, but she accepted the prompting. "I think any of us might have been a little—annoyed," she said steadily, as if striving to be utterly truthful. "Nita told us—" she turned to Dundee, whose pencil was flying, "that Polly had made no excuse at all; in fact, she quoted Polly exactly: 'Sorry, Nita. Can't make it for lunch. I'll show up at your place at 2:30 for bridge.'"
"Nita couldn't bear the least hint of being slighted," Janet Raymond explained, with a malicious gleam in her pale blue eyes. "If it hadn't been for Lois and Hugo—Judge Marshall, I mean—Nita Selim would never have been included in any of our affairs—and she knew it! The Dunlaps can do anything they please, because they're—"
"Please, Janet!" Lois Dunlap cut in, her usually placid voice becoming quite sharp. "You must know by this time that I make friends wherever I please, and that I liked—yes, I was extremely fond of poor little Nita. In fact, I am forced to believe that, of all the women she met in this town, I was her only real friend."
There was a flush of anger on her lovably plain face as her grey eyes challenged first one and then another of the "Forsyte girls." One or two looked a little ashamed, but there was not a single voice to contradict Lois Dunlap's flat assertion.
"Will you please go on, Pen—Miss Crain?" Dundee urged, but he had missed nothing of the little by-play.
"I wish you would call me Penny so I'd feel more like a person than a witness," Penny retorted thornily. "Where was I?... Oh, yes! Nita cooled right off when Lois reminded her that Polly was always abrupt like that—" and here Penny paused to grin apologetically at the girl with the masculine-looking haircut, "and then we all went into the private dining room, where Nita had ordered a perfectly gorgeous lunch, with a heavenly centerpiece of green-striped yellow orchids—Well, I don't suppose you're interested in what we ate and things like that—" she hesitated.
"Was there anything unusual in the conversation—anything like a quarrel?" Dundee prompted.
"Oh, no!" Penny protested. "Nothing happened out of the ordinary at all—No, wait! Nita received a letter by messenger—or rather a note, when we were about half through luncheon—"
There was a low, strangled-in-the-throat cry from someone. Who had uttered it Dundee could not be sure, since his eyes had been on his notebook. But what had really interrupted Penny Crain was a crash.
"Pardon! Awfully sorry," Clive Hammond muttered, as he bent to pick up the fragments of a colored pottery ashtray which he and his fiancee, Polly Beale, had been sharing.
"Don't worry—about picking it up," Polly commanded in her brusque voice, but Dundee, listening acutely, was sure of a very slight pause between the two parts of her sentence.
He glanced at the couple—the tall, masculine-looking girl, lounging deep in an armchair, Clive Hammond, rather unusually good-looking with his dark-red hair, brown eyes, and a face and body as compactly and symmetrically designed as one of the buildings which had been pointed out to Dundee as the product of the young architect's genius, now resuming his seat upon the arm of the chair. His chief concern seemed to be for another ashtray, which Sergeant Turner, with a grin, produced from one of the many little tables with which the room was provided.... Rather strange that those two should be engaged, Dundee mused....
"Go on, Miss Crain," the detective urged, as if he were impatient of the delay. "About that note or letter—"
"It was in a blue-grey envelope, with printing or engraving in the upper left-hand corner," Penny went on, half closing her eyes to recapture the scene in its entirety. "Like business firms use," she amended. "I couldn't help seeing, since I sat so near Nita. She seemed startled—or, well maybe I'd better say surprised and a little sore, but she tore it open and read it at a glance almost, which is why I say it must have been only a note. But while she was reading it she frowned, then smiled, as if something had amused or—or—"
"She smiled like any woman reading a love letter," Carolyn Drake interrupted positively. "I myself was sure that one of her many admirers had broken an engagement, but had signed himself, 'With all my love, darling—your own So-and-so!'"
Dundee wondered if even Carolyn Drake's husband, the carefully groomed and dignified John C. Drake, bank vice-president, had ever sent her such a note, but he did not let his pencil slow down, for Penny was talking again:
"I think you are assuming a little too much, Carolyn.... But let that pass. At any rate, Nita didn't say a word about the contents of the note and naturally no one asked a question. She simply tucked it into the pocket of her silk summer coat, which was draped over the back of her chair, and the luncheon went on. Then we all drove over here, and found Polly waiting in her own coupe, in the road in front of the house. She told Nita she had rung the bell, but the maid, Lydia, didn't answer, so she had just waited.
"Nita didn't seem surprised; said she had a key, if Lydia hadn't come back yet.... You see," she interrupted herself to explain to Dundee, "Nita had already told us at luncheon that 'poor, darling Lydia,' as she called her, had had to go in to town to get an abscessed tooth extracted, and was to wait in the dentist's office until she felt equal to driving herself home again in Nita's coupe.... Yes, Nita had taken her in herself," she answered the beginning of a question from Dundee.
"At what time?" Dundee queried.
"I don't know exactly, but Nita said she'd had to dash away at an ungodly hour, so that Lydia could make her ten o'clock dentist's appointment, and so that she herself could get a manicure and a shampoo and have her hair dressed, so I imagine she must have left not later than fifteen or twenty minutes to ten."
"How did Mrs. Selim get out to Breakaway Inn, if she left her own car with the maid?"
"You saw her arrive with Lois," Penny reminded him.
"Nita had told us all about Lydia's dentist's appointment when she was at my house for dinner Wednesday night," Lois Dunlap contributed. "I offered to call for her anywhere she said, and take her out to Breakaway Inn in my car today. I met her, at her suggestion, in the French hat salon of the shop where she got her shampoo and manicure—Redmond's department store."
"A large dinner party, Mrs. Dunlap?" Dundee asked.
"Not large at all.... Just twelve of us—the crowd here except for Mr. Sprague, Penny and Janet."
"Who was Mrs. Selim's dinner partner?" Dundee asked.
"That's right! He isn't here!" Lois Dunlap corrected herself. "Ralph Hammond brought her and was her dinner partner."
"Thank you.... Now, Penny. You were saying the maid had not returned."
"Oh, but she had!" Penny answered impatiently. "If I'm going to be interrupted so much—. Well, Nita rang the bell and Lydia came, tying on her apron. Nita kissed her on the cheek that wasn't swollen, and asked her why she hadn't let Polly in. And Lydia said she hadn't heard the bell, because she had dropped asleep in her room in the basement—dopey from the local anesthetic, you know," she explained to Dundee.
"I—see," Dundee acknowledged, and underlined heavily another note in his scrawled shorthand.
"So Lydia took our hats and summer coats and put them in the hall closet, and then followed Nita, who was calling to her, on into Nita's bedroom. We thought she either wanted to give directions about the makings for the cocktails and the sandwiches, or to console poor Lydia for the awful pain she had had at the dentist's, so we didn't intrude. We made a dive for the bridge tables, found our places, and were ready to play when Nita joined us. Nita and Karen—"
"Just a minute, Penny.... Did any of you, then or later, until Mrs. Marshall discovered the tragedy, go into Mrs. Selim's bedroom?"
"There was no need for us to," Penny told him. "There's a lavatory with a dressing-table right behind the staircase. I, for one, didn't go into Nita's room until after Karen screamed."
There was a chorus of similar denials on the part of every woman present. At Dundee's significant pressing of the same question upon the men, he was met with either laconic negatives or sharply indignant ones.
"All right, Penny. Go ahead, please."
"I was going to tell you how we were seated for bridge, if that interests you," Penny said, rather tartly.
"It interests me intensely," Dundee assured her, smiling.
"Then it was this way," began Penny, thawing instantly. "Karen and Nita, Carolyn and I were at this table," and she pointed to the table nearer the hall. "Flora, Polly, Janet and Lois were at the other. We played at those tables all afternoon. We simply pivoted at our own table after the end of each rubber. When Nita became dummy—"
"Forgive me," Dundee begged, as he interrupted her again. "I'd like to ask a question ... Mrs. Dunlap, since you were at the other table, perhaps you will tell me what your partner and opponents were doing just before Mrs. Selim became dummy."
Lois Dunlap pressed her fingertips into her temples, as if in an effort to remember clearly.
"It's—rather hard to think of bridge now, Mr. Dundee," she said at last. "But—yes, of course I remember! We had finished a rubber and had decided there would be no time for another, since it was so near 5:30—"
"That last rubber, please, Mrs. Dunlap," Dundee suggested. "Who were partners, and just when was it finished?"
"Flora—" Lois turned toward Mrs. Miles, who had sat with her hands tightly locked and her great haggard dark eyes roving tensely from one to another—"you and I were partners, weren't we?... Of course! Remember you were dummy and I played the hand? You went out to telephone, didn't you?... That's right! I remember clearly now! Flora said she had to telephone the house to ask how her two babies—six and four years old, they are, Mr. Dundee, and the rosiest dumplings—. Well, anyway, Flora went to telephone—"
"In the little foyer between the main hall and Mrs. Selim's room?"
"Yes, of course," Lois Dunlap answered, but Dundee's eyes were upon Flora Miles, and he saw her naturally sallow face go yellow under its too-thick rouge. "I played the hand and made my bid, although Flora and I had gone down 400 on the hand before," Lois continued, with a rueful twinkle of her pleasant grey eyes. "When the score was totted up, I found I'd won a bit after all. Our winnings go to the Forsyte Alumnae Scholarship Fund," she explained.
"Yes, I know," Dundee nodded. "And then—?"
"Polly asked the other table how they stood, and Nita said, 'One game to go on this rubber, provided we make it....' Karen was dealing the cards then, and Nita was looking very happy—she'd been winning pretty steadily, I think—"
"Pardon, Mrs. Dunlap.... How did the players at your table dispose of themselves then—that is, immediately after you had finished playing the last hand, and Mrs. Marshall was dealing at the other table?"
Lois screwed up her forehead. "Let me think—I know what I did. I went over to watch the game at the other table, and stayed there till Tracey—Mr. Miles—came in for cocktails. I can't tell you exactly what the other three did."
There was a strained silence. Dundee saw Polly Scale's hand tighten convulsively on Clive Hammond's, saw Janet Raymond flush scarlet, watched a muscle jerk in Flora Miles' otherwise rigid face.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet. "I am going to make what will seem an absurd request," he said tensely. "I am going to ask you all—the women, I mean—to take your places at the bridge tables. And then—" he paused for an instant, his blue eyes hard: "I want to see the death hand played exactly as it was played while Nita Selim was being murdered!"
"Shame on you, Bonnie Dundee!" cried Penny Crain, her small fists clenched belligerently. "'Death hand', indeed! You talk like a New York tabloid! And if you don't realize that all of us have stood pretty nearly as much as we can without having to play the hand at bridge—the very hand we played while Nita Selim was being murdered!—then you haven't the decency and human feelings I've credited you with!"
A murmur of indignant approval accompanied her tirade and buzzed on for a moment after she had finished, but it ceased abruptly as Dundee spoke:
"Who's conducting this investigation, Penny Crain—you or I? You will kindly let me do it in my own fashion, and try to be content when I tell you that, in my humble opinion, what I propose is absolutely necessary to the solution of this case!"
Bickering—Dundee grinned to himself—exactly as if they had known each other always, had quarreled and made up with fierce intensity for years.
"Really, Mr. Dundee," Judge Hugo Marshall began pompously, embracing his young wife protectingly, "I must say that I agree with Miss Crain. This is an outrage, sir—an outrage to all of us, and particularly to this frail little wife of mine, already half-hysterical over the ordeal she has endured."
"Take your places!" Dundee ordered curtly. After all, there was a limit to the careful courtesy one must show to Hamilton's "inmost circle of society."
Penny led the way to the bridge tables, the very waves of her brown bob seeming to bristle with futile anger. But she obeyed, Dundee exulted. The way to tame this blessed little shrew had been solved by old Bill Shakespeare centuries ago....
As the women took their places at the two tables, arguing a bit among themselves, with semi-hysterical edges to their voices, Dundee watched the men, but all of them, with the exception of Dexter Sprague—that typical son of Broadway, so out of place in this company—had managed at least a fine surface control, their lips tight, their eyes hard, narrowed and watchful. Sprague slumped into a vacated chair and closed his eyes, revealing finely-wrinkled, yellowish lids.
"Where shall we begin?" Polly Beale demanded brusquely. "Remember this table had finished playing when Karen began to deal what you call the 'death hand,'" she reminded him scornfully. "And Flora wasn't here at all—she had been dummy for our last hand—"
"And had gone out to telephone," Dundee interrupted. "Mrs. Miles, will you please leave the room, and return exactly when you did return—or as nearly so as you can remember?"
Dundee was sure that Mrs. Miles' sallow face took on a greyish tinge as she staggered to her feet and wound an uncertain way toward the hall. Tracey Miles sprang to his wife's assistance, but Sergeant Turner took it upon himself to lay a detaining hand on the too-anxious husband's arm. With no more than the lifting of an eyebrow, Dundee made Captain Strawn understand that Flora Miles' movements were to be kept under strict observation, and the chief of the Homicide Squad as unobtrusively conveyed the order to a plainclothesman loitering interestedly in the wide doorway.
"Now," he was answering Polly Beale's question, "I should like the remaining three of you to behave exactly as you did when your last hand was finished. Did you keep individual score, as is customary in contract?—or were you playing auction?"
"Contract," Polly Beale answered curtly. "And when we're playing among ourselves like this, one at each table is usually elected to keep score. Janet was score-keeper for us this afternoon, but we all waited, after our last hand was played, for Janet to give us the result for our tally cards."
Dundee drew near the table, picked up the three tally cards—ornamental little affairs, and rather expensive—glanced over the points recorded, then asked abruptly:
"Where is Mrs. Miles' tally? I don't see it here."
There was no answer to be had, so he let the matter drop, temporarily, though his shorthand notebook received another deeply underlined series of pothooks.
"Go on, please, at both tables," Dundee commanded. "Your table—" he nodded toward Penny, who was already over her flare of temper, "will please select the cards each held at the conclusion of Mrs. Marshall's deal."
"Oooh, I'd never remember all my cards in the world," Carolyn Drake wailed. "I know I had five Clubs—Ace, King, Queen—"
"You had the Jack, not the Queen, for I held it myself," Penny contradicted her crisply.
"Until this matter of who held which cards after Mrs. Marshall's deal is settled, I shall have to ask you all to remain as you are now," Dundee said to the players seated at the other table.
At last it was threshed out, largely between Penny Crain and Karen Marshall, the latter proving to have a better memory than Dundee had expected. At last even Carolyn Drake's querulous fussiness was satisfied, or trampled down.
Both Judge Marshall and John Drake started forward to inspect the cards, which none of the players was trying to conceal, but Dundee waved them back.
"Please—I want you men—all of you, to take your places outside, and return to this room in the order of your arrival this afternoon. Try to imagine that it is now—if I can trust Mr. Miles' apparently excellent memory—exactly 5:25—"
"Pretty hard to do, considering it's now a quarter past seven and there's still no dinner in sight," Tracey Miles grumbled, then brightened: "I can come right back in then—at 5:27, can't I?"
That point settled, and the men sent away, to be watched by several pairs of apparently indolent police eyes, Dundee turned to the bridge table, Nita's leaving of which had provided her murderer with his opportunity.
"The cards are 'dealt'," Penny reminded him.
"Now I want you other three to scatter exactly as you did before," Dundee commanded, hurry and excitement in his voice.
Lois Dunlap rose, laid down her tally card, and strolled over to the remaining table. After a moment's hesitation, Polly Beale strode mannishly out of the room, straight into the hall. Dundee, watching as the bridge players earlier that afternoon certainly had not, was amazed to see Clive Hammond beckoning to her from the open door of the solarium.
So Clive Hammond had arrived ahead of Tracey Miles! Had somehow entered the solarium unnoticed, and had managed to beckon his fiancee to join him there! Prearranged?... And why had Clive Hammond failed to enter and greet his hostess first? Moreover, how had he entered the solarium?
But things were happening in the living room. Janet Raymond, flushing so that her sunburned face outdid her red hair for vividness, was slowly leaving the room also. Through a window opening upon the wide front porch Dundee saw the girl take her position against a pillar, then—a thing she had not done before very probably—press her handkerchief to her trembling lips.
But the bidding was going on, Karen Marshall piping in her childish treble: "Three spades!"
Dundee took his place behind her chair, then silently beckoned to Penny to shift from her own chair opposite Carolyn Drake to the chair Nita Selim had left to go to her death. She nodded understandingly.
"Double!" quavered Carolyn Drake, next on the left to the dealer, and managed to raise her eyebrows meaningly to Penny, her partner, who had not yet changed places.
Penny, throwing herself into the spirit of the thing, scowled warningly. No exchanging of illicit signals for Penny Crain! But the instant she slipped into Nita Selim's chair her whole face and body took on a different manner, underwent almost a physical change. She was Nita Selim now! She tucked her head, considered her cards, laughed a little breathless note, then cried triumphantly:
"And I say—five spades! What do you think of that, partner?"
Then the girl who was giving an amazing imitation of Nita Selim changed as suddenly into her own character as she changed chairs.
"Nita, I don't think it's quite Hoyle to be so jubilant about the strength of your hand," she commented tartly. "I pass."
Karen Marshall pretended to study her hand for a frowning instant, then, under Penny's spell, announced with a pretty air of bravado:
"Six spades!... Your raise to five makes a little slam obligatory, doesn't it, Nita?"
Carolyn Drake flushed and looked uneasily toward Penny, a bit of by-play which Dundee could see had not figured in the original game. But she bridled and shifted her plump body in her chair, as she must have done before.
"I double a little slam!" she declared. Then, still acting the role she had played in earnest that afternoon, she explained importantly: "I always double a little slam on principle!"
Penny, in the role of Nita, redoubled with an exultant laugh, then, as herself, said, "Pass!" with a murderous glance at Mrs. Drake.
"Let's see your hand, partner," Karen quavered, addressing a woman who had been dead nearly two hours; then she shuddered: "Oh, this is too horrible!" as Penny Crain again slipped into Nita Selim's chair and prepared to lay down the dummy hand.
And it was horrible—even if vitally necessary—for these three to have to go through the farce of playing a bridge hand while one of the original players was lying on a marble slab at the morgue, her cold flesh insensible to the coroner's expert knife.
But Dundee said nothing, for Tracey Miles was already hovering in the doorway, ready for his cue to enter.
Penny, or rather "Nita," was saying:
"How's this, Karen darling?" as she laid down the Ace and deuce of Spades, Karen's trumps.
"I hope you remember you are vulnerable, as well as we," Carolyn remarked in a sorry imitation of her original cocksureness, as she opened the play by leading the Ace of Clubs.
"And how's this, partner?... A singleton in Clubs!" Nita's imitator demanded triumphantly, as she continued to lay down her dummy hand, slapping the lone nine of Clubs down beside trumps; "and this little collection of Hearts!" as she displayed and arranged the King, Jack, eight and four of Hearts; "and this!" as a length of Diamonds—Ace, Jack, ten, eight, seven and six slithered down the glossy linen cover of the bridge table toward Karen Marshall. "Now if you don't make your little slam, infant, don't dare say I shouldn't have jumped you to five!... I figured you for a blank or a singleton in Diamonds, and at least the Ace of Hearts, or you—cautious as you are—wouldn't have made an original three Spade bid without the Ace.... Hop to it, darling!"
"This is where I enter," Tracey Miles whispered to Dundee, and, at a nod from the young detective, the pudgy little blond man strode jauntily into the living room, proud of himself in the role of actor.
"Hello, everybody! How's tricks?" he called genially, but there was a quiver of horror in his voice under its blitheness.
Penny was quite pale when she sprang from her chair, but her voice seemed to be Nita's very own, as she sang out:
"It can't be 5:30 already!... Thank heaven I'm dummy, and can run away and make myself pretty-pretty for you and all the other great big men, Tracey darling!"
Dundee's keen memory registered the slight difference in the wording of the greeting as reported by this pseudo-Nita and the man she was running to meet. But Penny, as Nita, was already straightening Tracey Miles' necktie with possessive, coquettish fingers, was coaxing, with head tucked alluringly:
"Tracey, my ownest lamb, won't you shake up the cocktails for Nita? The makings are all on the sideboard, or I don't know my precious old Lydia—even if her poor jaw does ache most horribly."
Then Penny, as Nita, was on her way, pausing in the doorway to blow a kiss from her fingertips to the fatuously grinning but now quite pale Tracey Miles. She was out of sight for only an instant, then reappeared and very quietly retraced her steps to the bridge table.
Unobtrusively, Dundee drew his watch from his pocket, palmed it as he noted the exact minute, then commanded curtly: "On with the game!"
As Tracey Miles passed the first bridge table Lois Dunlap linked her arm in his, saying in a voice she tried to make gay and natural:
"I'm trailing along, Tracey. Simply dying for a nip of Scotch! Nita's is the real stuff—which is more than my fussy old Pete can get half the time!—and you know I loathe cocktails."
The two passed on into the dining room, the players scarcely raising their eyes from their cards, which they held as if the game were real.
Dundee, his watch still in his hand, advanced to the bridge table. Strolling from player to player he made mental photographs of each hand, then took his stand behind Penny's chair to observe the horribly farcical playing of it. Poor little Penny! he reflected. She hadn't had a chance against that dumb-bell across the table from her. Fancy anyone's doubling a little slam bid on a hand like Carolyn Drake's—or even calling an informatory double in the first place! Why hadn't she bid four Clubs after Karen's original three Spade bid, if she simply wanted to give her partner information?... Not that she really had a bid—
Karen's hand trembled as she drew the lone nine of Clubs from the dummy, to place beside Carolyn's Ace, but Penny's fingers were quite steady as she followed with the deuce of Clubs, to which Karen added, with a trace of characteristic uncertainty, the eight.
"There's our book!" Carolyn Drake exulted obediently, but she cast an apologetic glance toward Penny. "If we take one more trick we set them."
"Fat chance!" Penny obligingly responded, and Dundee, relieved, knew that the farcical game would now be played almost exactly, and with the same comments, as it had been played while Nita Selim was being murdered. Thanks to Penny Crain!
With a shamefaced glance upward at Dundee, Carolyn Drake then led the deuce of Diamonds, committing the gross tactical error of leading from the Queen. Karen added the Jack from the dummy, and Penny shruggingly contributed her King, to find the trick, as she had suspected in the original game, trumped by the five of Spades, since Karen had no Diamonds.
"So that settles us, Carolyn!" Penny commented acidly.
Her partner rose to the role she was playing. "Well, as I said, I always double a little slam on principle. Besides, how could I know they would have a chance for cross-ruffing in both Clubs and Diamonds? I thought you would at least hold the Ace of Diamonds and that Karen would certainly have one, as I only had four—"
Penny shrugged. "Oh, well! Let's play bridge!" for Karen was staring at her cards helplessly. "Sorry, Karen! I realize a post mortem is usually held after the playing of a hand—not before."
"I—I guess I'd better get my trumps out," Karen—now almost a genuine actress, too—breathed tremulously. "I do wish Nita were playing this hand. I know I'll muff it somehow—"
"Good kid!" Dundee commented silently, and allowed himself the liberty of patting Karen on her slim shoulder.
The girl threw an upward glance of gratitude through misty eyes, then led the six of Spades, Mrs. Drake contributing the four, dummy taking the trick with the Ace, and Penny relinquishing the three.
"Let's see—that makes five of 'em in, since I trumped one trick," Karen said, as she reached across the table to lead from dummy.
As if the words were a cue—which they probably were—Judge Marshall entered the room at that moment, making a great effort to be as jaunty, debonair, and "young for his age" as he must have thought he looked when he made his entrance when the real game was being played.
At his step Karen lifted her head and greeted her elderly husband with a curious mixture of childlike joy and womanly tenderness:
"Hullo, darling!... I'm trying to make a little slam I may have been foolish to bid, but Nita jumped me from three to five Spades—"
"Let's have a look, sweetheart," the retired judge suggested pompously, and Dundee gave way to make room for him behind Karen's chair.
But before Judge Marshall looked at his wife's cards he bent and kissed her on her flushed cheek, and Karen raised a trembling hand to tweak his grey mustache. Dundee, with uplifted eyebrow, queried Penny, who nodded shortly, conveying the information that this was the way the scene had really been played when there was no question of acting.
"I'm getting out my trumps, darling," Karen confided sweetly, as she reached for the deuce of Spades—the only remaining trump in the dummy.
"What's your hurry, child?" her husband asked indulgently. "Lead this!" and he pointed toward the six of Diamonds.
"I wish you'd got a puncture, Hugo, so you couldn't have butted in before this hand was played," Carolyn Drake spluttered. "Remember this is a little slam bid, doubled and redoubled—"
"I should think you would like to forget that, Carolyn!" Penny commented bitingly. "But I agree with Carolyn, Hugo, that Karen is quite capable of making her little slam without your assistance."
"Please don't mind," Karen begged. "Hugo just wanted to help me, because I'm such a dub at bridge—"
"The finest little player in town!" Judge Marshall encouraged her gallantly, but with a jaunty wink at the belligerent Penny.
Smiling adoringly at him again, Karen took his suggestion and led the six of Diamonds from the dummy; Penny covered it with the nine; Karen ruffed with the seven of Spades from her own hand, and Mrs. Drake lugubriously contributed the four of Diamonds.
"I can get my trumps out now, can't I, Hugo?" Karen asked deprecatingly, and at her husband's smiling permission, she led the King of Spades, Carolyn had to give up the Jack, which she must have foolishly thought would take a trick; the dummy contributed the deuce, and Penny followed with her own last trump—the eight.
Karen counted on her fingers, her eyes on the remaining trumps in her hand, then smiled triumphantly up at her husband.
"Why not simply tell us, Karen, that the rest of the trumps are in your own hand?" Penny suggested caustically.
"I—I didn't mean to do anything wrong," Karen pleaded, as she led now with the ten of Hearts, which drew in Carolyn's Queen to cover—Carolyn murmuring religiously: "Always cover an honor with an honor—or should I have played second hand low, Penny?"—topped by the King in the dummy, the trick being completed by Penny's three of Hearts.
At that point John C. Drake marched into the room, strode straight to Dundee, and spoke with cold anger:
"Enough of this nonsense! I, for one, refuse to act like a puppet for your amusement! If you are so vitally interested in contract bridge, I should advise you to take lessons from an expert, not from three terrified women who are rather poor players at best. I also advise you to get about the business you are supposed to be here for—the finding of a murderer!"
Before Drake had reached his side, his purpose plain upon his stern, rather ascetic features, Dundee had taken a hasty glance at the watch cupped in his palm and noted the exact minute and second of the interruption. Time out!
"One moment, Mr. Drake," he said calmly. "I quite agree with you—from your viewpoint. What mine is, you can't be expected to know. But believe me when I say that I consider it of vital importance to the investigation of the murder of Mrs. Selim that this particular bridge hand, with all its attending remarks, the usual bickering, and its interruptions of arriving guests for cocktails, be played out, exactly as it was this afternoon. I thought I had made myself clear before. If you don't wish me to believe that you have something to conceal by refusing to take part in a rather grisly game—"
"Certainly I have nothing to conceal!" John C. Drake snorted angrily.
"Then please bow as gracefully as possible to necessity," Dundee urged without rancor. "And may I ask, before we go on, if you made your entrance at this time, and the facts of your arrival?"
Drake considered a moment, gnawing a thin upper lip. Beads of sweat stood on his high, narrow forehead.
"I walked over from the Country Club, after eighteen holes of golf with your superior, the district attorney," Drake answered, with nasty emphasis. "I left the clubhouse at 5:10, calculating that it would take me about twenty minutes for the walk of—of about a mile."
Dundee made a mental note to find out exactly how far from this lonely house in Primrose Meadows the Country Club actually was, but his next question was along another line:
"You walked, Mr. Drake?—after eighteen holes of golf on a warm day?"
Drake flushed. "My wife had the car. I had driven out with Mr. Sanderson, but he was called away by a long distance message. I lingered at the club for a while, chatting and—er—having a cool drink or two, then I set out afoot."
"No one offered you a lift?" Dundee inquired suavely.
"No. I presume my fellow-members thought I had my car with me, and I asked no one for a lift, for I rather fancied the idea of a walk across the meadows."
"I see," said Dundee thoughtfully. "Now as to your arrival here—"
"I walked in. The door had been left on the latch, as it usually is, when a party is on," Drake explained coldly. "And I was just entering the room when I heard my wife make the remark about covering an honor with an honor, and then her question of Penny as to whether she should have played second hand low."
"So you entered this time at the correct moment," said Dundee. "Now, Mr. Drake, I am going to ask you to re-enter the room and do exactly as you did upon your arrival at approximately 5:33. I am sure you would not willingly hamper me—or my superior—in this investigation."
Drake wheeled, ungraciously, and returned to the doorway, while Dundee again consulted his watch, mentally subtracting the minutes which had been wasted upon this interruption, from the time he had marked upon his memory as the moment at which Drake had interfered. But an undercurrent of skepticism nagged at his mind. Why had Drake chosen to walk? And why had it taken him from 5:10 to approximately 5:33 to walk a mile or less? The average walker, and especially one accustomed to playing golf, could easily have covered a mile in fifteen minutes, instead of the twenty-three minutes Drake had admitted to.... If it was a mile!... Was it possible that the banker loved wildflowers?
With head up aggressively, Drake was undoubtedly making an effort to throw himself into the role—or perhaps into a role chosen on the spot!
"Where's everybody?" he called from the doorway. "Am I early?"
"Don't interrupt, please, dear," Carolyn Drake answered, her voice trembling now, where before it must have been sharp and querulous.
Silently Drake took his place behind his wife's chair, laying a hand affectionately upon her shoulder. Dundee, watching closely, saw Penny's eyes widen with something like shocked surprise. So Drake was trying to deceive him, counting on the oneness of this group, his closest friends!
Karen, obviously flustered, too, reached to the dummy for the Ace of Diamonds, to which Penny played the three, Karen herself discarding the ten of Clubs, and Mrs. Drake the five of Diamonds.
"You asked no questions, Mr. Drake?" Dundee interpolated.
The banker flushed again. "I—yes, I believe I did. Carolyn—Mrs. Drake—explained that Karen was playing for a little slam in Spades, and that she had doubled—'on principle'," he added acidly—a voice which Mrs. Drake must be very well accustomed to, Dundee surmised.
"And when I told you that Nita had redoubled and it looked as if she was going to make it," Carolyn Drake whimpered and shifted her short, stout body in the little bridge chair, "you said—why not tell the truth?—you said it was just like me and I might as well take to tatting at bridge parties."
"That was said jokingly, my dear," Drake retorted, with a coldness that tried to be affectionate warmth.
"Play bridge!" Dundee commanded, sure that the approximate length of the previous dispute had now been taken up, whatever retort Carolyn Drake had made. Then he checked himself, again looking at his watch: "And just what did you answer to your husband's little joke, Mrs. Drake?"
"I—I—" The woman looked helplessly around the table, her slate-colored eyes reddened with tears, then she plunged recklessly, after a fearful glance at Dundee's implacable face. "I said that if it was Nita he was talking to, he wouldn't speak in that tone; that she could make all the foolish mistakes of over-bidding or revoking or doubling that she wanted to, and he wouldn't say a word except to praise her—"
"Then I may as well confess," Drake said acidly, "that I answered substantially as follows: 'Nita is an intelligent bridge player as well as a charming woman, my dear!...' Now make the most of that little family tiff, sir—and be damned to you!"
"Did that end the scene, Mrs. Drake?" Dundee asked gently.
"I—I said something about all the men thinking Nita was perfect," Mrs. Drake confessed, "and I cried a little, but we went on with the hand. And Johnny—Mr. Drake went away, walking up and down the room, waiting for Nita to come back, I suppose!"
"Then go on with the game," Dundee ordered.
Silently now, as silently as the real game must have been played, because of the embarrassing scene between husband and wife, the sinister game was carried to its conclusion. Karen led the Jack of Hearts from the dummy, Penny played her seven, Karen contributed her own deuce, and Mrs. Drake followed suit with the five.
Again Karen led from the dummy, with the four of Hearts, followed by Penny's nine, taking it with her own Ace, Mrs. Drake throwing off the five of Clubs. Karen then led the six of Hearts, Carolyn Drake discarded the six of Clubs, dummy took the trick with the eight of Hearts, and Penny sloughed the three of Clubs.
With a faint imitation of the triumph with which she had played the hand the first time, Karen threw down her remaining three trumps.
"I've made it—a little slam!" she tried to sound very triumphant. "Doubled and redoubled!... How much did I—did Nita and I make, Penny?"
"Plenty!" But before putting pencil to score pad, Penny cupped her chin in her hands and stared at Carolyn Drake. "I'd like to know, Carolyn, if it isn't one of your most cherished secrets, what possessed you to double in the first place?"
Carolyn Drake flushed scarlet as she protested feebly: "I thought of course I could take two Club tricks with my Ace and King.... That's why I doubled the little slam, of course. And my first double simply meant that I had one good suit.... I thought if you could bid at all that my two doubletons—"
"Oh, what's the use?" Penny groaned. "But may I remind you that it is not bridge to lead from a Queen?... You led the deuce of Diamonds, when of course the play, since you had seen the Ace in the dummy, was to lead your Queen, forcing the Ace and leaving my King guarded to take a trick later."
"But Karen didn't have any Diamonds at all," Carolyn defended herself.
"A secret you weren't in on when you led from your Queen," Penny reminded her. "Oh, well! We'll pay up and shut up!" and she made a pretense of totting up the score, while Karen, who had risen, stood over her like a bird poised for flight.
At that instant Dexter Sprague began to advance into the room, Janet Raymond at his side, her face flaming.
"Behave exactly as you did before!" Dundee commanded in a harsh whisper. No time for coddling these people now!
Dexter Sprague's face took on a yellower tinge, but he obeyed.
"Greetings!" he called in the jaunty, over-cordial tones of a man who knows himself not too welcome. "Where's Nita—and everybody? Isn't that the cocktail shaker I hear?"
Having received no answer from anyone present, Sprague strolled through the living room and on into the dining room, Janet following. Judge Marshall had nodded stiffly, and John C. Drake had muttered the semblance of a greeting.... Were they all overdoing it a bit—this reacting of their hostility to the sole remaining outsider of their compact little group?... Dundee stroked his chin thoughtfully.
But Penny was saying in her abrupt, husky voice: "Above the line, 1250; below the line 720, making a total of 1970 on this hand, Karen."
"Won't Nita be glad?" Karen gasped, then began to run totteringly, calling: "Nita! Nita!" But in the hall she collapsed, shuddering, crying in a child's whimper: "No, no! I—can't—go in there—again!"