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Authors: Elizabeth Daly

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BOOK: Any Shape or Form
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“Oh—yes. I did.” She looked at her gloves. “The rifle was oily. And dusty.”

“Two shots, two crows. Bull's-eyes.”

“Oh, they showed quite plainly up in the tree.”

“Whereabouts?”

“In the orchard.” But she was not diverted from her thoughts by Gamadge's attempt at small talk. She looked at the vines through which Malcolm had vanished. “I must go over to the greenhouse,” she said, “and see whether there's anything there for Johnny.” She followed in Malcolm's steps, parted the thorny creepers as he had done, and made an exit between the same two posts. The vines fell behind her like a curtain.

Vega stood looking after her for some moments.

Then she remarked: “Well!”

“Just a short cut to the greenhouse,” said Gamadge.

“I should like to drop a hint to that nice Mr. Drummond.”

That nice Mr. Drummond, as she very well knew, was secluded with Cora Malcolm among the cosmos and the chrysanthemums; but no doubt Vega was one of those elderly ladies who judge the behavior of women more sternly than that of men.

She led the way out of the rose garden, across the lawn, and up to the rockery, chatting as they walked.

“It really isn't much more chilly for a swim today than it was at dawn this summer.”

“At dawn?” Gamadge spoke with mild horror.

“There's nothing like a swim at dawn.”

“Not for me. I never liked the dawn. To me it's eerie, very eerie indeed.”

“Oh, but you miss so much in missing the dawn!”

“I'm too old now to learn anything new about the dawn,” said Gamadge gloomily.

They climbed the rockery path to the pool. Vega walked halfway around it to stand against the big birch; with one hand she grasped a sapling, with the other she supported herself in an attitude of exalted abandonment by clutching the branch of a small, dying pine. Gamadge, on the other side of the pool, avoided contemplation of her by a study of frogs.

“I never know,” he said, sitting on the low wall and bending to the water, “whether these are real frogs or some of Johnny's garden jokes. Not until they—”

The one he was looking at solved the problem by leaping from his ledge and entering the water with a plop. Gamadge took out his handkerchief and wiped his face.

“Wood life is full of hazards at all times,” he observed, “but at dawn—who knows what goes on at dawn? Transformations. The things that were sitting on the toadstools jump away, and objects that had come to life become inanimate again. Your idol, for instance. I hope—”

“You are absurd, Mr. Gamadge,” said Vega, her face raised to the sunlight that filtered down from an opening in the tree-tops. “Fear is not in the System.”

“It's crept in somehow. That frog didn't jump off his perch when my shadow touched him because he loved me.”

“All that is a mistake; just a mistake. My stepchildren, now: they don't like me.”

“Young people are often brusque nowadays.”

“At least they'll take my money now.”

Gamadge looked up at her, but her face was inscrutable.

“And they'll have it all,” she went on, “when I've been absorbed into the System.”

Gamadge, who felt rather like a kobold disputing with an eccentric fairy, so deeply was he in shadow, so brightly did the sun touch her beaky face and her yellow dress, shook his head. “Absorption? That sounds very easy and peaceful. Have you definite information about the process in your own case?”

“I have information.”

“You wouldn't care to pass the information along to me?”

“You wouldn't understand. It takes years of study.”

“That's where you metaphysicians have it all over the rest of us,” began Gamadge, and then the rifle cracked.

“I didn't hear a crow, did you?” he asked, still bending over another frog that he thought must certainly be an iron one. Then, getting no reply, he looked up. Vega stood against the big birch, supported by her grasp of the sapling and the little pine; there seemed to be a fly on her forehead, and as Gamadge looked it seemed to begin to crawl downwards. He leapt up at the moment the body plunged, but before he reached it it lay across the ledge of the pool. The yellow wreath had fallen off, and floated on the dark water.

CHAPTER FOUR
Autumn Flowers

T
HE DEAD WOMAN
was big-boned and heavy; it took Gamadge a minute or two to get her off the wall, and to lay her down on the mossy earth of the rockery. She had been shot squarely between the eyes, and the bullet had not emerged.

He stood up, turned, and backed against the trunk of the big birch. He was facing as Vega had done, along the rockery path and out upon the lawn, and he knew at once that pursuit of the murderer would be useless. Forty yards down and diagonally to the right, the lower angle of the rose garden, like a section of green wall, cut into his line of vision. Within that section the rifle must have been fired. Even if the murderer had not known that Gamadge was in the offing, concealed for the moment behind shrubs, to stand and fire outside the rose garden in the open would have meant a lunatic risk of being seen.

The rifle had been fired from within the angle of the enclosure; and before Gamadge had raised the body the murderer had escaped from the upper or the lower side of the place. In whichever direction Gamadge ran he might find someone; he was pretty sure that the party was scattered, otherwise the murderer would not have risked the crime at all, and the chance of mutual alibis; but where was Gamadge to look for a killer?

Escape had been made to the upper grounds, through the gate behind the tool house; or it had been made by way of the gate in the south hedge, now concealed by the angle of the rose garden, and up through the woods or down the Loop. From the Loop it was only a few yards to the greenhouse or the vegetable gardens, only a few yards into the flower garden, and thence to the orchard and the swimming pool below.

Gamadge looked at his watch—twenty-eight minutes past five. The shot had been fired at least two minutes earlier. He got out his handkerchief and covered the dead woman's face; then he walked down the flagged steps and out on the lawn.

There was not a soul in sight, and hardly a sound except the sawing of the crickets. The greens were vivid in this waning light, and every leaf and twig of the hedges picked out as if by an old-fashioned artist with an eye for detail. He went into the rose garden. Yes: there, in the left-hand corner, lay the rifle; and beside it the garden gloves that he had seen in the basket a few minutes before. There also was the weeding spud; it lay near a heap of piled turf—small, neat squares that had very recently been removed from their bed.

They were lying at different levels, and when he stepped carefully around them, bent sideways, and peered through the vines, he saw that they were exactly beneath the area through which the muzzle of the rifle must have been pushed and aimed. He could see the big birch.

But he couldn't swear to Vega's exact position against it, and the bullet hadn't come out through the back of her head and marked the spot where she had stood. An inch to right or left—that would make a difference here. The murderer's mind had worked furiously, but it had worked accurately. Time had been taken before the murder to pile these squares of sod so that no expert would be able to determine the exact line of fire, and from it the height of the marksman.

The killer had known that a bullet from a .22 probably wouldn't emerge from the back of a human skull.

Gamadge bent over the heaps of sod; Drummond, Malcolm or himself might have fired from ground level, to the right or left. Blanche might have fired from one level, Redfield or Cora Malcolm from two, Abigail from the third. If they were all tested, any fractional discrepancy would be accounted for by the personal idiosyncrasy of each—under strain—in holding the gun.

And unless the garden gloves had been available the murder probably wouldn't have been committed. There would not only be lack of time after the murder to rub off fingerprints, but all these people knew that the hand that fires a rifle may show evidence of having done so. Blanche Drummond already wore gloves, and had fired the rifle while wearing them; she would use these large cotton things over her own to widen the field of suspicion. Malcolm's hands might be stained; but he would certainly have used the gloves, for the same reason.

Gamadge went out of the enclosure, to see Walter Drummond coming through the gate in the tall hedge that cut off the flower garden from the lawn.

“Hello,” called Drummond. “Johnny's dahlias are dead.” He carried a great bunch of russet-brown button chrysanthemums.

Gamadge asked: “Where's Miss Malcolm? Not with you?”

“She only stayed with me a few minutes. She was saying something about croquet.”

“I remember.”

“There's a sporting layout down in the orchard.”

He jerked his head backwards.

“Is she in the orchard?” asked Gamadge.

“No, she went up to the tool house where the set is. She didn't come through again.” He added: “What have you done with the old lady?”

“Abigail?”

Drummond, looking shocked, said of course not. Mrs. Malcolm. He added with a laugh: “If that was a reconciliation party this afternoon, give me w-war to the knife.” He stammered a little when he was nervous. “Kids won't get their money,” he said, “if they go on like that.”

“Anybody pass through the flower garden while you were there? After your wife and Malcolm came up with the crows?”

“I didn't even see them. I was behind that bank of cosmos at the other end.”

“Behind the cosmos for half an hour?” Gamadge looked at his watch. “You left the house before five. It's five thirty-five now.”

“What of it?” Drummond's sunburned face was frowning. “What is it to you how long I've been there?” He added: “Plenty to see in a garden, even at this time of the year.”

Mrs. Drummond came through the gate from the Loop. She had a few red and white carnations in her hand. “Nothing but these in the place,” she said, “nothing at all. Oh—you found something, Walter. Good. We might ask Johnny for a few. Ours are so poor.”

Drummond replied: “Johnny hasn't more than enough for himself.”

“Have you been picking pinks all this long time, Blanche?” asked Gamadge.

“Long time? What do you mean? It wasn't long, was it?”

“He's got some game,” said Drummond, “timing us all.”

Cora Malcolm came slowly down from the upper grounds, past the end of the rockery. There was a croquet mallet in her hand; she was swinging it. When she was abreast of the entrance to the rose garden she paused. “Anybody want a game?” she asked.

“Have you been up in the tool house all this time, Miss Malcolm?” asked Gamadge, turning to look at her.

“I sat on the steps after I got out my lucky mallet, and had a cigarette.”

Blanche cried: “You've lost your gold pin, Cora!”

Cora glanced down at her left lapel. “It does seem to have fallen off,” she said. “The catch was old and loose.”

“No wonder you look terrified! Your stepmother will have a fit,” remarked Blanche, arranging her carnations.

“I can find it. I know where I've been.” Cora did not look terrified, but neither did she look happy. All her ironical gaiety was gone. She faced the entrance to the rose garden. “I really must,” she said, “see that Apollo thing.”

Gamadge said: “You see it now, Miss Malcolm.”

“What a horror. I must see it close.”

“Don't think of going into the place.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Verboten?”

“I might almost say polizeilich verboten.”

“Man's crazy,” said Drummond. “He has some game on.”

“Perhaps he thinks the place is uncanny,” said Cora, gazing in at the statue. “It ought to be.”

Redfield came through the gate from the Loop, his basket overflowing with marigolds. He shut the gate behind him and latched it. “I don't know,” he said, “why none of you can close a gate. A gate is supposed to be meant to keep things out, you know; and this one actually does do something about the rabbits.”

“I won't shoot rabbits for you, Mr. Redfield,” said David Malcolm, who now sauntered through the gate from the flower garden. “I love the bunnies.” He was carrying a bunch of wild asters.

Gamadge was looking at Redfield. He asked: “Where's Abigail?”

“Went around the Loop. Wanted a stroll.”

“How long ago?”

“My God,” said Drummond, “he's at it again.”

Redfield said that Abby had only been with him a minute or so. “She ought to be back any time now.” He looked from Drummond to Malcolm. “Well!” he exclaimed. “I must say I'm obliged to you for those flowers. And so will Alice be. But I'm under a double obligation to you, David, because you shot me a couple of crows. I saw them hanging up.”

Blanche Drummond said: “I shot one of them, Johnny.”

“Good! All that target practice wasn't for nothing, then. I'm glad to know it. One's peace was shattered all summer, but not in vain. Where did you get those asters, David? They're a lovely blue.”

“I got them down by the swimming pool.”

“Mighty thoughtful of you. Where's your stepmother?” He swung about to take in the emptiness of the farther landscape. “Did she go back to the house, Gamadge?”

Miss Ryder came through the wicket gate, and closed it carefully behind her.

“That's right, Abby!” Redfield smiled at her.
“You
wouldn't leave a gate open.”

“Why should I?” She advanced, and Gamadge realized, seeing the red spray of false Solomon's-seal in her hand, that she at least required no alibi. She would never have required one from him, now she was clear in the eyes of the law.

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