Only One Way to Go cover

Only One Way to Go

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1978

© 1978 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

It was a “missing boy case” that dropped into Thomas’ lap just when his private investigator license was about to be revoked…a not entirely hardboiled private eye job, told straightforwardly, without frills, to go with Thomas’ detective method: he kept pushing, kept slogging away, never content to leave well enough alone; and as one of the participants said, “Once these things start there’s only one way to go”…

A uniformed maid with a face as sharp and shiny as a new ax led me back through the cool entrance corridor and up a short flight of stairs to a second floor sitting room. “Mr. Howard will be with you in a moment,” she said. Then she was gone. There were a number of chairs scattered about, but not wanting Howard to find me sitting, I walked over to the wall that was mostly windows and looked out. A vast expanse of well-trimmed lawn sloped down to the screen of trees that marked the end of the property.

Unless you liked grass it wasn’t much of a view. Off to my left, though, a blonde girl in a white tennis dress was practicing serves on a clay court. She worked with single-minded intensity, smashing her supply of balls into the far corner, then walking around to retrieve them and smash them back. I was still watching her when Howard came in.

“Mr. Thomas,” he said without preamble. “Good of you to come on such short notice.” He was a short, slightly built man in his mid to late sixties, with glasses that looked too big for his narrow, triangular face. He was bald except for a close-clipped fringe around the ears and a few scattered wisps across the crown.

I wasn’t put off by the unprepossessing appearance, because I’d taken the trouble to look him up in Who’s Who before coming out. It was a short entry with the usual biographical trivia: Wendell Howard, born 1920, married Elizabeth Bolton Wainwright (deceased).

The important thing was occupation: Chairman of the Board and Chief Operating Officer, Wainwright Pharmaceuticals.

I’d also looked up Wainwright Pharmaceuticals. It had started out as a patent-medicine company in the thirties, expanding into true pharmaceuticals with the War, but like so many essentially one-man operations it barely managed to survive the almost simultaneous deaths of its founder and his only child, a son. It had been almost bankrupt when Howard had come along to marry the son’s widow, take charge, and build it up to where it once again controlled a respectable share of the legitimate drug market. And since the older Wainwright had held most of the stock and it was still largely family-owned, most of the money had stayed home too.

A taller, younger man had come in behind him. Now he closed the door and came over to take a position just to his employer’s left as Howard sat down and leaned back to eye me speculatively.

“You come very highly recommended,” he said.

“Thank you.”

A faint smile tugged at the corner of Howard’s mouth. “That was a statement, Mr. Thomas,” he said, “not a compliment. However, there’s no point wasting your time or mine on nonessentials.” He glanced up at the man beside him. “I believe you’ve already met Mr. Lawson, my attorney.”

Lawson looked at me impassively. He was about my age, with a round pug-nosed face and pitted cheeks.

“I understand your boy is missing,” I said matter-of-factly.

Howard smiled again. “You don’t waste time on nonessentials either, do you, Mr. Thomas? That’s good. I like that in a man. In any case, you’re right. The boy left the house six weeks ago, ostensibly to join some friends backpacking in the Rockies. The problem is, the others returned two days ago. Billy wasn’t with them. He had, in fact, never been with them. He’d lied from the start about where he was going and what he intended to do.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty. He’ll be twenty-one in March.”

“Was he unhappy at home?”

“He had no reason to be,” Howard said sharply. “But whether he was or not, he’s a minor and I want him found and brought home. When he’s of age he can do as he pleases, but now he’s my responsibility and I intend to exercise that responsibility.”

“Have you notified the police?”

“No, I have not. I saw no reason to expose myself and the rest of the family to that kind of scandal and publicity when he has so obviously run off to ‘find’ himself in some long-haired hippie commune or something equally foolish. If I had reason to be concerned about his health or safety it would be a different matter, but under the circumstances I much prefer one man, working alone and sensitive to my concerns for privacy. That’s why I had Lawson contact you. And, as I say, you were highly recommended.”

“You can only go so far on recommendations,” I said. “After six weeks he could be very hard to find.”

“Possibly,” Howard said. “But we won’t know until you’ve tried. And I’m not a poor man. You’ll be well paid for your efforts.”

He looked at me unblinkingly. I shrugged. “It’s your money,” I said.

“So it is,” Howard said. He put his hands on the arms of his chair and pushed himself up. “Well, now that that’s settled I’ll leave you and Lawson to work out the details.” He went to the door, then paused with his hand on the knob. “By the way,” he said, “I understand you’ve been having some difficulty with the state licensing board. Over a shooting, I believe.”

I looked away, but not before I caught a glimpse of Lawson’s eyes glinting with silent amusement. “It’ll work itself out,” I said.

Howard nodded soberly. “Yes, Mr. Thomas,” he said, “it will.” He smiled. “I’m not in any sense a ‘public’ man but I’m not without influence—or above the will to use it when I choose. Good day, Mr. Thomas,” he said. “And good luck in your search.”

He went out. Lawson closed the door after him, then turned back to me. His eyes were impersonal again. “You’ll need some money for a retainer,” he said, “and to cover your expenses. Mr. Howard asked me to give you this. If and when you need more you can let me know.”

I took the check he held out. It was for $1000. I put it in my pocket. “You’ll want an accounting, of course,” I said.

Lawson shrugged. “As far as Mr. Howard is concerned, success is the best accounting. However, yes, you should keep a record—in case one is needed. Now, what else do you need?”

“A picture would be helpful.”

Lawson nodded. “There’s one in his room. I’ll get it.”

“I’d also like to talk to whoever saw him last.”

Lawson smiled faintly. “Oddly enough,” he said, “that was me. I’d come by quite late that evening with some papers for Mr. Howard to sign and as I came in Billy was going up to his room. He said he’d just seen his father and he’d tell me goodbye now as well because he planned to leave early the next morning. I have no idea what time he actually did leave, but he was gone when the first servants arrived at six.”

“How did he seem?”

“As you might expect. Excited. Almost exuberant. At the time I put it down to the prospect of the trip. But now, of course—” He shrugged.

“Where do you think he might have gone?”

Lawson shook his head. “I’d have to agree with Mr. Howard, but beyond that it’s impossible to say. He was a very withdrawn, almost secretive boy.” He smiled wryly. “That’s why Mr. Howard was so pleased when he brought up the backpacking trip. One of the leaders of the group—Brian Mercer—is the son of one of Mr. Howard’s closest business associates and Mr. Howard thought it might mean that Billy was opening up, becoming part of the team.”

“I see,” I said.

“I hope so,” Lawson said. He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Now let’s get you that photograph.”

* * *

After I’d gotten the photo—a standard studio portrait of a good looking boy with dreamer’s eyes and a still unformed face—the same hatchet-faced maid who’d brought me in escorted me out. My car was parked at the head of the looping drive, but on impulse I left it there and walked around the house to the tennis court I’d seen from the window. The blonde girl was still there, still smashing away at the opposite corner.

She kept at it for several minutes after she became aware of my presence, then carefully put her racquet down, and tossing her head to free her hair, came over to where I stood. She was a tall girl, in her mid to late twenties at the most, and only the strong jaw and concentration lines above her eyes kept her from being beautiful.

“They said you’d be coming this morning,” she said. She gave her head a final toss. “You’re the detective they hired to find my brother, aren’t you?”

“That’s right, Miss Howard.”

“Wainwright.” Her voice was sharp. “And I prefer Pat to Miss.”

“Billy’s your half-brother then?”

She shook her head. “No, we’re full brother and sister. When Mother married Wendell Howard, she wanted us to stay one family. So she asked us to use his name. Billy still does. I don’t. Not that it matters. The important question is whether you have any realistic hope of finding him.”

“That depends on whether he wants to be found or not,” I said. “Fortunately, most runaways do. It’s the whole point of their running away.”

“I see,” Pat said. She looked off, beyond me. “If you do find him—or rather, when you find him—what happens then?”

“I’m not a social agency,” I said. “I just make my report, and that’s it.”

“How nice for you. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for the rest of us who have to live with the problem.” She looked away again. “I might have prevented all this if I’d been here. But I was in Europe and Billy had already gone when I got back. Even so, I’m not going to let everything we’ve planned for be ruined by an impulsive act—or my stepfather’s preconceptions.” Her eyes swung back to hold mine. “When you find him,” she said, “I want to know it first. Before you tell anybody else.”

“Even before your stepfather?”

“Especially before my stepfather,” she said. She smiled cynically. “He wouldn’t have to know,” she said. “And I’d make it worth your while, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. “Mind telling me why?”

She looked up sharply. “Does it matter?”

“It might,” I said. When she still hesitated, I shrugged. “You’ve gone this far,” I said, “you might as well go the rest of the way. If I can’t be trusted, the mistake’s already been made.”

“Yes,” she said, “I suppose it has.” She was silent another moment, then looked up at me again. “Do you know what a spendthrift trust is?”

“Basically,” I said, “it’s a provision put in a will when there’s a large amount of money involved and some question about the ability of the heir to handle it. The principal is put in trust and the heir is given an allowance from the income either forever or until his competence is proved or disproved.”

“Exactly,” Pat said “So you can understand the situation here. When Grandfather died, he left the bulk of his estate to Billy in trust until he was twenty-one—unless since Billy was only a baby at the time he turned out to be incapable of handling money, in which case the trust would continue indefinitely.” Her eyes held mine steady now. “Howard’s been Billy’s guardian under the trust ever since Mother died and I know he’s going to claim Billy’s disappearance proves he’s incapable of handling the money and stock. But if I can reach Billy first, together we can work out a defense to counter that so that Billy won’t be denied his inheritance.”

“Unless,” I said, “the facts prove he’s incapable.”

“Let me worry about that,” she said. “You just tell me where he is.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I said.

Pat’s eyes blazed. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted!”

“As far as it goes, I can,” I said. “I’m not going to tell your stepfather what you’ve asked me to do. On the other hand, I’m not going to step into the middle of a family squabble either.”

She looked at me for a long moment, then nodded soberly, the anger gone from her eyes and manner. “Very wise,” she said. “Except that like it or not you’re already in the middle. Think about it.” And with that she turned on her heel and marched back to pick up her racquet. It flashed suddenly and the ball slammed down with more than usual force on the chalk lines across the net. I watched for several minutes, then walked back to my car.

* * *

There was a pile of mail waiting for me when I got back to my office. Six months earlier there would have been a fair amount of incoming cash mixed with the bills, some of them now second notices. But then Continental Bank had hired me to stop a series of break-ins at a warehouse they were holding in trust. It started out nice and clean cut. I staked the place out and caught the punk climbing in an unlocked window the first night. Unfortunately, when I challenged him he made the bad mistake of reaching under his jacket. A mistake for him because I shot him twice before he could bring his hand out again. A mistake for me because there was no gun under the jacket, only a handkerchief, and no witnesses to back up my side of it.

The State’s Attorney waffled for most of a month, then declined prosecution. The State licensing board was a lot less charitable and on the basis that what happened was less important than what might happen, raised questions about my judgment and fitness to continue to operate. They didn’t pull my license but they were well on their way to it. Which, of course, was one more reason, family squabble or not, I couldn’t afford to turn down Howard’s $1000. I marked his check for deposit and dropped it in an envelope to my bank.

First thing the next morning I looked up Brian Mercer.

“I don’t know what it’s got to do with me,” he said. He was a stocky boy, Billy’s age or a little older, dressed in the uniform of the day” faded jeans and jacket. “What I mean is, I knew Billy from school and, you know, around, but we weren’t really what you’d call close.”

“Close enough, though, for him supposed to be going along with you on a camping trip,” I said.

Mercer shook his head. “That’s what he told his old man,” he said. “He never said anything to the rest of us going. To tell you the truth, I would have been surprised if he had. Physical activity wasn’t particularly his thing.”

“What was?”

Mercer hesitated, then shook his head again. “Look, man,” he said, “I really don’t want to get involved with this. I figure if somebody wants to take off and live his own life, that’s his business. Why not let him?”

“If that’s what he wanted,” I said, “he could have saved himself and everybody else a whole lot of trouble by waiting until he was twenty-one.”

“Or maybe he figured it was better to take off while the going was good,” Mercer said. “Look, man, I don’t know what you know about the family, but they had Billy’s life planned out for him from the day he was born. He was the male heir and that meant some day he was going to step in and take over where Grampa left off. That’s why the old man left him all that stock. If he’d been smart, he’d have given it to Billy’s sister. She’s the real take-over kind.”

“And Billy isn’t?”

Mercer shrugged. “Guess not, or he wouldn’t have taken off.”

“You know,” I said, “for somebody who wasn’t close you seem to know a lot.”

Mercer shrugged again. “You know how it is,” he said. “You hear things.”

“Maybe you heard something else.”

He shook his head. “I told you, man,” he said. “I don’t want to get involved.”

“Sure,” I said. “But if you know something and you don’t tell, you’re just as involved as if you did. More even, because you’ve made a judgment and taken sides, which means if things don’t work out the way you think they ought to, then maybe you have to share some of the guilt, too.”

Mercer looked at me for a long time. “You really dig in, don’t you?”

I shrugged and rose. “I think the phrase is ‘telling it like it is,’” I said. He didn’t rise to show me out, and I didn’t make any move to leave on my own. Finally he said, “Look, maybe this is a mistake, but I can tell you this. Billy used to have a pad over on Auburn. I was there once for a party with some other guys. It wasn’t all that much, but he acted like he thought it was some kind of big deal.”

“You remember the address?”

“Sure,” Mercer said. “3650 West. If he really wants to lose himself, though, he won’t be there. It was supposed to be a big secret, but everybody knew.”

“It’s something to check out anyway,” I said. “Thanks.”

Mercer smiled wryly. “For nothing,” he said. “I hope.”

* * *

The address wasn’t hard to find. It was half of a duplex on a street that had just started to turn shabby. Nobody was home the first time I called, but when I went back that evening, lights were on inside and two cars were parked in the short side drive. A tall dark-haired girl opened the door to my ring.

“Billy home?” I said.

The girl looked at me curiously, then shook her head.

“That’s funny,” I said. “He said he’d meet me here.”

The girl continued to shake her head. “The hell he did,” she said.

I shrugged and handed her one of my cards. “It was worth a try,” I said.

“Sure,” she said and stepped back to let me enter. The room was small and overfurnished. Along the far wall a cabinet-sized TV flickered its bluish images. Just beyond it was a door, closed now, leading back into the rest of the house. The girl moved past me to turn off the TV.

“What do you want Billy for?” she said. “Not that it’ll make any difference. I’m the last person who’d know where he is.”

“You’re living in his house, though.”

“Sure,” she said, “why not? I’m his wife.”

* * *

The girl’s name was Myra Dawn and according to the leatherette-bound certificate she dug out she and Billy Howard had been married four days after he ostensibly left for the camping trip.

“I guess it was kind of dumb,” she said. We sat facing each other across the width of the room. “I knew he was only marrying me because I was pregnant, but I thought, you know, maybe it would work out anyway. And at first it looked like maybe it would. We drove over to Indiana and spent the three days’ waiting period in a Holiday Inn—almost like a honeymoon, you know? Then I don’t know whether it got through to him at last that he was stuck with me or what, but after the ceremony Billy got real uptight and I couldn’t do anything to please him. I mean, not anything.

“Finally, I told him that since the kid was going to have a name it didn’t matter to me whether we stayed together or not. As far as I cared, he could do what he pleased. He gave me a real funny look then and said, ‘That shows what you know.’ The next morning, though, he was gone.”

“And you haven’t seen him or made any effort to get in touch with him since?”

Myra shrugged. “What would be the point? If he wants me, he knows where I am. I figure, though, he’s gone back home for good.”

“Not quite,” I said.

“What’s that mean?”

I told her.

* * *

Both cars were still in the drive when I left. There could be any number of different explanations, but I wasn’t paid to make assumptions. So as soon as I was far enough down the block and out of sight, I cut my lights and motor and pulled over to the curb.

Forty-five minutes later Myra’s door opened again and a man came out and trotted across the lawn to the rear car. It was too dark and I was too far away to make out his features, but I’d already gotten a good long look at his license plate.

* * *

Howard sat quietly for a long moment after I finished my report. We were back in that same second-floor sitting room, he, Lawson and I. It might have been the day before repeating itself except that now Pat Wainwright sat grim-faced and silent, with her back to the windows. Finally Howard stirred, the corners of his mouth curving down even more markedly.

“A fine mess,” he said.

“But not irremedial,” Lawson said. He looked down his nose at me as if somehow that made it my fault. “Billy’s a minor. The marriage can be set aside.”

“And the child?” Howard said. “Can you set that aside too?”

Lawson didn’t reply. Howard continued to look up at him for another long moment, then turned back to me and sighed. “Well, Mr. Thomas, I can’t say I particularly care for the news you bring. But you have done your job and done it well. Send me your bill. I’ll pay whatever you ask.”

“If that’s what you want,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

I shrugged. “You did hire me to find him,” I said.

Howard smiled grimly. “I don’t think we need worry too much about Billy now,” he said. “This isn’t the first time he’s run off and left someone to clean up after him. Once the heat is off, he’ll be back soon enough”—he glanced over at Pat—“just like before.”

“He was only thirteen then,” Pat flashed, “and still upset because—”

“And he’s twenty now,” Howard snapped back, “and upset because he got some tramp pregnant and was damn fool enough to marry her. When he’s thirsty it’ll be something else. He hasn’t changed and despite what you say it’s obvious he never will.”

“And neither will you, will you?” Pat turned to me. “If you were going to continue to look for Billy,” she said, “what would be your next step?”

“The obvious one,” I said. “Track down Myra’s visitor last night and see where he led.”

“Do it then. Or is there still some reason you wouldn’t want to work for me?”

Howard’s face crimsoned, but before he could explode Lawson put a restraining hand on the back of his chair. “I shouldn’t think it need come to that,” Lawson said. “How long do you think it would take to find this person?”

He was asking me. I shrugged. “A couple of days,” I said. “A week at the most.”

“I think we can go with that,” he said to Howard. “Having gone as far as we have already, it would be foolish not to take another step.” He smiled faintly. “And even if Thomas find nothing, we’re no worse off.”

“All right,” Howard said. The corners of his mouth turned down again and he looked straight at me. “You have until the end of the week,” he said. “Then we’ll decide what we do next.” He glanced at his stepdaughter. “Fair enough?”

She nodded.

* * *

Nobody said anything more about paying me, but there was more than enough of Howard’s $100 left to cover my time. So as soon as I got back to my office I put in a call to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I had to talk to four clerks in three different offices but in the end I got what I wanted. The car in Myra’s driveway was registered to a Charles Michaels, 1832 S. Beeler.

* * *

It was a big old house long since gone down in the world and cut up into single-occupancy rooms. According to the row of mail slots just inside the doorway, Charles’s was number 2C. It was empty, but on my third knock a birdlike old woman stuck her head out of the door across the hall.

“You just missed him,” she said. “He left early this morning.”

“You know when he’ll be back?”

“He won’t,” she said. “Not anymore. He moved out.” She twisted her neck to cast a long conspiratorial look up and down the hallway. “It was none of my business,” she said, “but there was a big row about it on the stairs. You’re supposed to give notice and the manager wouldn’t let him take is suitcase because he owed two weeks’ rent.”

“I see,” I said. I went back downstairs to the apartment marked Manager and told the woman who answered that Charles Michaels had asked me to pay his rent and pick up his things.

* * *

It was even later than usual when I got back to my office and the building was dark. I let myself in with my key and took Charles’s suitcase inside where I could go through it undisturbed.

There wasn’t much—just a jumble of clothes and shaving gear, all of it essentially characterless as a YMCA towel, and I was just about to write it off as $76 wasted when I found the photograph apparently overlooked and left in an inside jacket pocket. It was an unframed Polaroid print of a man and woman standing on an old-fashioned front porch. The man I assumed to be Charles. The woman, glowering into the camera and holding a small bunch of nondescript flowers, was Myra Dawn. I put the picture in my pocket, then shoved the rest of Charles’s things back into the suitcase even more carelessly than he had, and leaving the bag behind, left the building.

I was halfway across the lot to my car when I heard somebody coming up fast behind me. Instinct said turn, but before I could even start, I was caught from behind and pulled back. Something hard smashed down against the side of my head and I fell into complete darkness…

When I came to, I was still on my back on the pavement and a woman was bending over me. It took a full minute for my eyes to focus and recognize Myra.

“Thank God,” she said. “I thought you were dead.”

It took several tries but finally I managed to sit up. Myra looked at me anxiously. “Are you all right?” she said.

“As much as I will be,” I said. I had a good-sized lump where I’d been hit but no blurring or double vision. No nausea either, and with Myra’s help I got the rest of the way up and went back inside.

My office was a shambles—furniture overturned and smashed and what had been the contents of file drawers scattered everywhere. Charles’s suitcase was gone, of course. Even worse, though, the one locked drawer had been forced and the gun inside taken too.

Myra stood just inside the door, looking dismayed. “My God,” she said, “what happened?”

“I thought maybe you could tell me.”

“No,” she said. “No, honest. All I know is that Billy told me to come here tonight to see if I could find you. He wants to talk to you.”

“Why didn’t he come himself?”

“Because he’s afraid,” she said. She shrugged helplessly. “What I told you last night,” she said, “wasn’t all the truth. After we were married, Billy and I didn’t really split. He had some business he said he had to take care of down in Florida. I wanted to go along with him and make it, you know, kind of a real honeymoon. But he said it wasn’t that kind of business and that I’d be better off waiting at home. The next time I heard from him was last week.

“I don’t know what happened and maybe I don’t want to. But he’s in trouble and he’s scared. Right after that, too, Charles Michaels showed up, looking for him. The only good thing Charles ever did in his life was introduce me to Billy. So I made up that story to get rid of him. I don’t think he bought it, though, because he keeps hanging around. He was the one you saw leaving my house the other night.”

“I know,” I said. “Where’s Billy now?”

“At the St. Clair Hotel,” Myra said, “registered under the name of Brown. I don’t know for how long, though. Like I say, he’s really scared.”

* * *

What I should have done, by all the rules, was call the police and report the mugging and theft of my pistol. What I did, of course, was take Myra home, then drive back across town to the St. Clair.

It was a second-rate commercial hotel at the wrong end of Michigan Avenue and at this time of night the lobby was deserted except for an elderly clerk in shirt sleeves nodding behind the desk. He woke up long enough to give me Billy’s room number, then was dozing off again even before I had punched the button to call the elevator down.

The number he gave me was on the third floor and at the end of a corridor. There was no answer to my knock, but the latch hadn’t quite caught and the door moved slightly under my hand. After a moment’s hesitation I pushed it all the way open. Charles Michaels—or at least the man in Charles’s photograph—sprawled in a chair facing me. Blood still oozed from his chest.

I fought down the impulse to run, took a deep breath, stepped into the room, and pressed the back of my hand down along the side of his neck. He was still warm but there wasn’t a trace of the carotid pulse. He had been shot twice close enough to where the physiology books say the heart is to make no difference. The gun that apparently had done it lay on the floor beside his outflung left foot where the killer might have dropped it in his haste. Beautiful. Because even despite the unfamiliar silencer I had no difficulty recognizing it as the one stolen from my desk.

There was nothing else in the room—not even clothes—and I backed out carefully, resisting the second idiot urge of the evening—to take the gun with me—and closed the door behind me just as I had found it. The only thing I did was wipe my fingerprints from the knob. Then I went back down to the lobby. The clerk was still asleep behind the desk. I went out without disturbing him.

There was a phone booth on the corner that somehow hadn’t been vandalized, and I used it to call Myra at her home. She answered on the second ring, but I put the receiver back without speaking. A black and white patrol car had swung around the other end of the street, blinker lights flashing, and now it pulled to a halt in front of the St. Clair. Two blue caps piled out and dashed inside. In a very short time there were going to be a whole lot more police around, and I wanted to get the hell away from there before they had a chance to arrive.

* * *

Without traffic, it was less than ten minutes to Lawson’s apartment but it was very definitely at the right end of Michigan Avenue, not quite on the lake but high enough to overlook its neighbors for a view almost as good as if it had been. Lawson himself answered the door. He was wearing a plum-colored dressing gown and his hair was rumpled.

“Couldn’t this have waited?” he said.

“Not this time,” I said. “I think I’ve found Myra’s visitor.”

“You think?”

“He was dead,” I said. “So I couldn’t ask him to be sure.”

Lawson looked at me for a long moment, then opened the door wider. “Perhaps you’d better come in,” he said.

The room was furnished simply but expensively. Lawson sat down in the one chair with arms and faced me. “Now,” he said, “what’s this all about?”

“It’s a pretty straightforward story,” I said, “on the surface. Myra gave me what may or may not be a cock-and-bull story about Billy being on the run from the consequences of some shady deal he was involved in and sent me off to meet him. The trouble is when I got where he was supposed to be I found a corpse waiting for me with my own gun on the floor beside him. If I’m right he was a punk named Charles Michaels, who may or may not have been involved with Billy in that so-called shady deal but who definitely was Myra’s visitor the other night.”

“You think she killed him and set you up to take the blame?”

“Not by herself,” I said. “Charles had been dead only a matter of minutes when I found him and I called Myra right afterwards. She couldn’t possibly have killed him and gotten back across town in time to answer her phone. But there she was.”

“I see,” Lawson said. He was silent for another long moment. “Have you decided what you’re going to tell the police yet?”

“What’s wrong with the truth?”

Lawson smiled cynically. “You know the answer to that,” he said, “or you wouldn’t be here.” He sighed. “You can’t help being involved, of course. If nothing else, the desk clerk will identify you as having been where you were, and I think you can rest assured that once the police identify the gun as yours they’ll make sure the clerk gets a chance to see you again. Coupled with the attack on you earlier, it adds up to a very damning case. On the other hand, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty copping a plea. Self-defense might be a little much this time, but I think the State’s Attorney would buy manslaughter.” He nodded as if pleased with himself. “Yes, that should work out very well.”

“For whom?”

“For everybody, Mr. Thomas. For you as well as for Mr. Howard and Billy. After all, what would you serve? A few years at the most. With Mr. Howard’s influence behind you, you might even draw a suspended sentence. But whatever the penalty, there would be a place for you when you came out. Mr. Howard takes good care of his employees—particularly those who put his interests first.”

I let my eyes drift around the room. “I can see that,” I said.

“I’m sure you can,” Lawson said, unruffled. He rose and went to the door. “Let me know your decision,” he said. “Soon.”

* * *

I was pretty sure the police couldn’t have managed to trace the gun back to me yet, but I spent the night in a motel anyway rather than risk finding them waiting when I got home. Then first thing the next morning I drove down to Headquarters and asked for Dave Minor. Minor was Robbery-Burglary and not likely to be up on a homicide investigation. But on the other hand he was the closest friend I had left on the force and considering what I had to say, a little sympathy up front wouldn’t hurt.

“Well,” Minor said, “this is a surprise.” He was a burly man with pale reddish hair and a fleshy strong-chinned face suffused with the subcutaneous flush that seems to go with fair skin and overweight. “Somebody did tell me you were back in business.”

“Maybe more than I’d like to be,” I said. “Suppose I told you I killed a man last night.”

Minor’s face lost its friendliness. “You damn fool,” he said.

I spent the rest of the day going over my story to successive sets of police onlookers both in uniform and out. Finally Minor told me I could use the phone on his desk to make my call. Two hours later, Lawson had had time to make his calls, Minor told me I could go.

* * *

Myra didn’t seem particularly happy to see me, leaving the door on the chain and peering out through the narrow gap. I held up my hands to show they were empty. “No hard feelings, Myra,” I said. “You only did what you were told. I know that.”

She continued to regard me suspiciously. “Is that what you came to say?”

“Partly, but mostly that it’s past time you met your in-laws.”


“There’s a lot of money there, Myra,” I said. “More than enough for both of us if we play it right.”

“How much?”

“A half million,” I said. “Maybe more.”

Myra released the chain. “What would I have to do?” she said.

“Like I said. Come out and meet your in-laws.”

* * *

Howard sat back and looked around at the four of us: Lawson, Pat Wainwright, Myra, and myself. It was later that same evening. The servants had been dismissed for the night and we were assembled in what I took to be Howard’s study—at least, it was furnished with a massive desk. On closer inspection, though, what I had taken for a bookcase on the opposite wall turned out actually to be a dry sink and bar.

“I’m not sure I understand why you felt it necessary to have this meeting,” he said. He might have been addressing a recalcitrant board of directors. “I thought you and Lawson had agreed on how this matter was to be handled.”

“We discussed it,” I said. “We didn’t agree.”

“I see,” Howard said. He looked at me unblinkingly. “It’s your decision,” he said. “Obviously, I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to. However, if you act against what I consider my interest you do it at your own risk. You get no support here.” He broke off to glance over at Pat and was apparently satisfied with what he saw. “No support at all,” he added.

“Even if I could prove Billy wasn’t involved?”

Howard shook his head. “Unfortunately,” he said, “you can’t. The facts are against you.”

“Not the facts,” I said. “Only what Myra says are the facts, and Myra’s a liar.”

“Why, you—” Myra burst out. She turned to Howard. “You know what he’s after? Money. He told me we could rip you off for a half million between us.”

Howard looked at me. I shrugged. “I had to tell her something to get her out here,” I said.

“Of course,” Howard said drily. “But go on. Let’s hear what you have to tell the rest of us.”

“All right,” I said. “Let’s work on the theory that Myra is lying. She needed a partner, and you can almost sense his—or her—presence the way astronomers do with planets by the way the visible objects behave—in this case the visible objects are Myra and Charles. It’s a little much that Charles should have gone on the run just as I started looking for him. Then later, when she was selling me the bill of goods about Billy, Myra identified Charles as the one I had seen leaving her house. The trouble is I was careful not to be seen staking out the house. So how did she know I’d seen anybody?”

I looked around. No one offered an answer. “Of course,” I said, “it’s not the sort of proof that would stand up in court. But this just might.” I tossed the photograph I’d found in Charles’s suitcase onto Howard’s desk. “It could have been taken any time, of course, and Myra never denied she knew Charles before she met Billy. But the bouquet in the picture suggests some kind of occasion. A wedding maybe? It just might be interesting to backtrack Myra to see if she wasn’t married before. Or better still, show the picture to the J.P. she says married her and Billy to see how many of the participants he recognizes.”

Lawson brought the gun out from under his jacket. “You had to keep pushing, didn’t you?” he said. “You couldn’t just leave well enough alone.”

“Neither could you,” I said, “although when you come right down to it, you really gave yourself away last night when you pointed out that the desk clerk could identify me. I hadn’t said anything about a desk clerk—or a hotel, for that matter.”

“Then the more fool you.”

“Or you,” I said. “You ought to take your own advice and quit while you’re ahead.”

Lawson shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “None of us can. Once these things start there’s only one way to go.”

He was facing me but he wasn’t really addressing me, and after a long moment Howard pushed himself up out of his chair. “Do what you have to,” he said. He sounded old and tired, and he left the room, moving as if 100 years had hit him all at once.

Pat jerked around nervously in her chair. “I don’t understand this,” she said. “What’s going on here?”

“It’s very simple,” I said. “Your brother never married Myra. It was Charles impersonating Billy—and your stepfather and his attorney set it up.

“But where’s Billy then?”

“The only place he could be,” I said. “He’s dead. He’s been dead all along. The whole idea was to set up Myra and her baby as Billy’s heirs so his share of your grandfather’s estate wouldn’t pass to you and leave Howard and Lawson out in the cold. I’ll bet Howard doesn’t have much stock in his own name and it’s quite a comedown to find yourself suddenly dependent on the good will of somebody who’s hated your guts all along. Right, Lawson?”

“What does it matter?” he said. “It’s not going to help you.” He gestured with the gun. “Get up.”

“No,” Myra said. “There’s a better way.” She crossed over to the bar and came back with a bottle and glass. “Nobody’s going to get too worked up about a couple drunks killed in a smash-up. Just one of those things.” She set the bottle and glass down where I could reach them. “Go ahead,” she said. “Pour yourself a drink unless you’d prefer a bullet right now.”

I shrugged and picked up the bottle. “It’s not going to work, Lawson,” I said. “There’s a squad car waiting outside now. I just convinced them to let me go it alone until we were sure if it was only you and Myra or whether Howard was in it too.”

Lawson smiled bleakly. “You keep trying, don’t you?” he said. “But nobody believes you anymore.” He gestured again with the gun. I poured a hefty drink into the glass, drank it down, and on order followed it with a second and third. Lawson moved over to stand behind Pat.

“All right,” he said. “Now the girl.”

I got up, a little unsteadily, and carried the bottle and glass across to Pat. At the moment the whiskey I’d drunk was still concentrated in my stomach but it wouldn’t be long before it sped through my bloodstream to the major centers of my brain. And all the police in the world wouldn’t help me then.

Pat took the glass I poured for her and held it stubbornly clenched in her hand. Lawson nudged her shoulder with the gun. “Drink,” he said.

With a swift unhesitating motion she threw the whiskey back into his face. He recoiled instinctively and before he could recover I swung the bottle as hard as I could, catching him square across the bridge of the nose. He went down like a stone, the gun skittering off somewhere behind him.

Myra started for the gun, then when she saw that Pat was going to beat her to it, turned and dashed for the door. I let her go. I was in no condition to catch her and the police really were outside anyway. With one final effort I heaved the bottle out through the window. It wasn’t the agreed-on signal, but it would bring them charging in just the same.

* * *

Minor was waiting for me when I came down the stairs. I was still feeling the effects of the whiskey.

“You don’t look so good,” he said.

“I don’t feel so good,” I said. “If you were a gentleman instead of a cop, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I was going to need a statement from you or not.” He shrugged. “The way it turned out, though, Myra’s already maneuvering for a deal to turn State’s evidence—although it’s a good question how she’s going to feel once the high-powered lawyers start getting to her.”

“That’s your problem,” I said. “All I wanted was to come out of this with my neck and license intact.”

Minor nodded. “You’ve done that,” he said.

Pat Wainwright came out of one of the side rooms and crossed the hallway, looking grim and efficient. She reminded me of somebody. It took me a minute to realize it was her stepfather. “Yeah,” I said. “The good guys always win.”