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Authors: Brett Halliday

Tags: #detective, #mystery, #murder, #private eye, #crime, #suspense, #hardboiled

Murder by Proxy

BOOK: Murder by Proxy
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Brett Halliday

Murder by Proxy

 

1.

 

Ellen Harris stood in the center of an immaculate bedroom in an apartment in New York’s East Seventies and turned about slowly to survey the large, pleasant room and assure herself for the last time that everything was in perfect order for her leave-taking.

She was a tall, beautifully proportioned woman of thirty with smooth, burnished blond hair that curled in slightly at the nape of her neck. She had a lovely, clear complexion with regular features, large blue eyes, set well apart and fringed with long, dark lashes, a generous mouth that smiled easily, and a firmly fleshed chin.

At the moment, Ellen Harris was stark naked.

An open suitcase lay on the foot of the neatly made double bed. It was carefully and lovingly packed with all the things she would need for two weeks in Florida, and ready to be closed. On the floor was a matching overnight bag, already closed and latched. The clothing she would wear on her trip was neatly laid out on a chair near the dressing alcove.

She completed her survey of the room with a small nod of satisfaction, then drew in her breath sharply and her smoothly fleshed body tensed as she heard the sound of a key being inserted in the front door beyond the hallway leading into the front room.

She took two instinctive steps in her bare feet across the rug toward an open closet where a flowered robe hung on the inside of the door, her gaze going quickly to an electric clock on her dressing table which showed the time to be eleven-thirty.

She paused with her arm outstretched and hand on the robe, turning her head to listen intently and hearing the outer door open quietly.

“Herbert?” she called hopefully in a modulated contralto voice, “Is that you?”

“Who the hell did you expect at this time of day?” an exuberant male voice called back from the outer room, and firm footsteps hurried down the hall toward the bedroom.

Ellen smiled with happy relief at the sound of her husband’s voice. She snatched the robe off the hook and held it demurely in front of her as she turned to face him.

He stopped in the doorway to take in her loveliness, feeling a little catch in his throat at sight of her that a year of marriage to Ellen had done nothing to dissipate.

He was a tall, compact man in his mid-thirties, with friendly, brown eyes and smooth, handsome features. He was wearing a charcoal-gray, Brooks Brothers’ suit, which clung superbly to wide shoulders and tapering waist, and he narrowed his eyes across the room at his wife, leaning indolently against the door-facing and thrusting both hands into the slash pockets of his jacket with elbows akimbo.

“I assume,” he said conversationally, “that you wouldn’t have been so quick to snatch that robe up if it had been someone else.”

“Of course not,” she agreed equably, with a teasing, luminous smile. “Every other man with a key to our front door just naturally expects me to be ready… and waiting… when he barges in.”

He said in an awed voice, “My God, you’re beautiful, Ellen.” He straightened up and began to walk toward her slowly.

She said, “You look pretty good yourself, Mr. Harris. I didn’t expect you for at least half an hour.”

“I slipped away from the office early. I got to thinking… well, hell, you know what I got to thinking. It’s going to be a long time without you.”

He stopped directly in front of her and put his hands on her bare shoulders, looking down into her face hungrily and exhaling a slow, shuddering breath.

She relaxed her grip on the robe and it slithered to the floor between them. She stood straight and proud, and her blue eyes were wide and moist, staring directly into his. She said, “I love you, darling. I don’t want to leave you. Let’s cancel the trip…”

He drew her to him slowly and lowered his lips to hers, and she pressed the length of her naked body against his and her arms went about his waist fiercely and they swayed together for a long moment in a passionate embrace before turning inevitably to the waiting bed and sinking down upon it together…

Herbert Harris was in the neat, compact kitchen that connected with the living-room, through a dining alcove, when his wife called to him from the bedroom, fifteen minutes later. He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up and was very carefully measuring a minute quantity of vermouth into a martini pitcher already containing ice cubes and gin. He called back, “Right away, sweetie,” and walked through the living room, carrying the pitcher and stirring the contents with a glass rod.

This time his wife again stood in the center of the bedroom, but now she was wearing a brassiere and a white slip, and had her arms through the sleeves of a sheer white blouse that she planned to wear on the airplane under a suit of blue silk.

She turned her back to him as he entered the room, and smiled back at him over her shoulder. “These damn tiny buttons in the back, Herb. Will you do them for me, please?”

He set the martini pitcher down on the glass top of a chest of drawers and said, “With pleasure, my dear.” He crossed to her and started fastening the blouse from the bottom, drawing it tight at her trim waist. “What I’m wondering,” he muttered with his lips close to the curling strands of blond hair at the back of her neck, “is why you chose this blouse to wear on your trip. Who’s going to unbutton it for you when you get there?”

“I can unbutton it, silly. I can even button it up if I have to, but it’s an awful nuisance.”

“And there’ll always be someone around to do the job for you,” he suggested lightly. “After all a man doesn’t have to be a husband to do a job like this.”

She flinched as though he had struck her. “Don’t say things like that, Herb. Even if you are kidding. It just isn’t funny. You
know
I’d rather stay here with you. You’re the one who insists.”

“There you are.” He fastened the last button and gave her shoulder a husbandly pat. “You know that both of us swore one year ago yesterday when we got married that we weren’t going to be like other couples and start taking each other for granted. And we promised each other a solemn promise that at least once each year we’d arrange to spend two weeks apart from each other. So hurry up and get the rest of your clothes on and join me for a final martini.”

“Do we have time?”

“Plenty of time. We don’t need to leave for the airport for at least twenty minutes.”

He backed away from her and picked up the martini pitcher, strolled back into the living room and set it down on the coffee table, then got two cocktail glasses from a kitchen cabinet.

Ellen came in from the bedroom just as he finished pouring two tall-stemmed glasses full of liquid. She said composedly, “I’m all set if you’ll close my suitcase.” She sat down in an overstuffed chair beside the coffee table and lit a cigarette, then lifted one of the cocktail glasses and sipped from it appreciatively.

“You know, Herb,” she said quietly, “I meant what I said a moment ago in the bedroom. Damn this whole idea of my trip to Miami. I’m going to hate every minute of it, if I think that you’re back here in New York brooding over me. Making up all sorts of nasty things about me and other men while I’m away from you. I love you, Herb. If you don’t know that… She frowned at him across her cocktail glass.

Herbert Harris said huskily, “I do know it, Ellen darling. I’m fully aware of it every moment of every day. I still think this trip is right and is necessary. I won’t be sitting around brooding. Damn it, darling. If I didn’t know you’d be faithful to me…

“Then why do you
say
things like that?” Ellen wailed. “About other men buttoning my blouse? You can’t… you just simply
can’t…
She sank back in her chair, glaring down at her cocktail glass and then emptying it in an abrupt gesture of defiance.

Herbert got to his feet and refilled her glass from the pitcher. He poured the rest of the liquid into his own glass, and said urbanely, “The whole idea is that we are intelligent people, and that this is an intelligent thing to do. Have fun in Miami,” he urged her. “Go out to Hialeah and bet on the horses; and have drinks at the Coca and take a fling at roulette at the Coral Casino. Don’t worry about me here in New York. I’ll be fine! I’ll be on the town. Playboy Herb Harris. That’s me.”

Ellen drank from her glass and studied him under lowered eyelids. After a moment, she achieved a shaky smile. “I’m not going to worry about you, Herb. I expect you to have fun. Have the boys from the office over for poker. I don’t want you to do a thing about the apartment while I’m gone. Don’t wash a dish… or even a glass. Rose and I worked all yesterday afternoon polishing everything up so it’s clean as a whistle. She won’t come back until Monday, two weeks from today, and I told her to spend the whole day before I get back cleaning the place up. So, you have fun, darling. Stack up all your dirty dishes and let Rose worry about them. Promise me?”

“Sure, I promise you,” he told her huskily. “You do the same. Have fun in Miami. Miss me a lot. When I see you next…”

Herbert Harris got to his feet, his face working queerly, and he held out his arms to his wife.

She looked up at him without moving out of her chair. “Everything is going to be fine, Herb.” She spoke with complete assurance. “I’ll call you at the office this afternoon as soon as I get settled in my hotel. You will be… careful… won’t you, darling?”

He said, “I’ll be… careful.”

Ellen finished her drink and stood up, carefully smoothing her skirt down over her thighs. She turned toward the bedroom saying, “If you’ll close my suitcase for me, darling?” and her husband followed her into the bedroom.

 

2.

 

The arrival of a beautiful, unescorted woman at any one of the dozens of luxury hotels on Miami Beach is no novelty and normally attracts only casual attention.

But a lot of heads turned to watch the tall blonde in the beautifully fitted, blue silk suit cross the lobby of the Beachhaven Hotel at four o’clock that afternoon. She was followed by a bellboy carrying a suitcase and a matching overnight bag. It was more than facial beauty, more than the lush promise of a beautifully sculptured female figure. Beautiful, well-stacked dames are a dime a dozen on Miami Beach. There was something special about the set of her head, the way she carried herself, the poised yet flowing grace of each separate step she took, an animal magnetism that managed to be demure yet was infinitely exciting to every male who saw her pass.

One felt she wanted and expected to attract masculine glances, yet secretly deplored the fact that this was so and was consciously determined to take no heed of them whatsoever.

The clerk on duty behind the desk was named Justus Lawford. He was tall, urbane and knowledgeable. He drew himself up a little straighter, glanced down quickly to check the amount of white cuff extending beyond his jacket sleeves, touched the neat, black bow-tie at his throat, and worked his features into the proper semblance of a tentative, welcoming smile as she approached the counter in front of him. It was not a subservient smile but it carefully erased every trace of the haughty superiority with which he was wont to greet newly arriving guests.

She carried a large, and obviously expensive handbag which she placed on the counter while she stripped off a pair of white string gloves and said, “I have a reservation. Mrs. Herbert Harris.” Her voice was low and husky, and somehow managed to seem very intimate. Her wide, blue eyes met his briefly with self-assured candor, and then long, fringed lashes came down to cut off the voltage.

He said, “Of course, Mrs. Harris,” and was dismayed by the treble note which unexpectedly crept into his voice. He turned to check a typed list of names, annoyed with himself and with the woman who had created this reaction within him. Consequently, he was very businesslike, almost curt, when he turned back and laid a registration card in front of her and offered her a pen. He said, “That’s for two weeks, Mrs. Harris? And you’re alone?”

She nodded and signed the card carefully, bending her blond head forward over the card so a faint whiff of expensive perfume came up to him. With her head bent, her low voice told him, “My husband couldn’t get away from his business at this time.” She lifted her blue eyes to his and smiled faintly, and added with a bubbling note of merriment, “He also has the modern idea that married couples should spend their vacations separately. I’m not at all sure.…” She broke off and frowned slightly. “Do you think it’s such a good idea?” She asked the question with such innocent naïveté that Justus Lawford responded with an expansive smile.

“I’m a bachelor myself, Mrs. Harris. But if I were married to…” He caught himself and didn’t say: “someone like you”; but the thought was implicit in the warmth of his voice. “I just don’t know,” he ended up lamely. “We’ve put you in three twenty-six, Mrs. Harris. A lovely room overlooking the ocean. I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable.”

“I just hope it won’t be too dreadfully boring,” she sighed, making a little, pouting moue. “All alone in a strange place.”

“Your first visit to Miami?”

“Yes. I’m afraid I don’t know a soul.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” he said heartily. “We have a lovely hostess who’ll see that you don’t remain a stranger for long. And many social activities.”

“Please,” she murmured. “Deliver me from your hostesses and social activities. Oh, I’ll want to rent a car for my stay. Can you arrange it? I think one of the rental companies is on my credit card.”

She was opening her leather bag as she spoke and he saw the wide wedding ring on her left hand set with small diamonds that twinkled in the light.

She took out a credit card and laid it in front of him, and he said, “I’ll call Avis at once. Will you wish to charge your hotel bill also, Mrs. Harris? In that case we can put the car rental on it.”

“Why, yes. I suppose that’s easiest. My husband is always after me to use the card more often. Could you have it delivered at once? A convertible, if they have one. I don’t really care what make.”

“It will be at the door in half an hour, Mrs. Harris.” He had taken an impression of the card, and now returned it to her. “You’ll just have the one bill to sign when you leave.”

“You’ve been very kind.” She dropped the card in her bag and closed it. “Will you call my room when it arrives? Perhaps there’ll be time for a little drive before it gets dark.”

“I’m sure there will be.” He nodded to the bellboy who stood behind her with her bags. “Show Mrs. Harris to three-two-six.”

He stood with his hands flat on the desk watching her cross toward the bank of elevators, thoroughly enjoying the faint twitch of silk-sheathed buttocks which subtly emphasized the ladylike poise of her walk.

“A real dish,” he told himself appreciatively. “By God, if I was married to a piece like that…” He snapped to attention and turned with an expression of hauteur to the fat lady who said,
“May
I have my key, young man?”

The bellboy waited respectfully in the elevator with her bags until she got off at the third floor, then said, “To your left, Ma’am.”

She said, “You lead the way,” looking aside and up into his stolid face. He was very tall and broad-shouldered and young, with black hair in a flat-topped crewcut, and she followed him down the carpeted hallway, appraising the youthful, rangy body in its well-cut livery of dark maroon with yellow epaulets and gold stripes on the sleeves. He stopped in front of a door numbered 326 and unlocked it, then stepped back to let her enter. She passed closer to him than was necessary, just brushing a rounded hip and shoulder against him, entering a large pleasant room with two wide windows on the opposite side looking down on the limitless blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

She crossed swiftly to the windows and stood looking out while he entered the room behind her and crossed to place her suitcase on a luggage rack and set the smaller bag on the floor beside it.

He straightened up and found her turned away from the window, regarding him with a smile. “What’s your name?” Her voice was very husky, almost a sensuous purr.

“Bill Thompson, Ma’am. Here’s the air-conditioner here with a thermostat on the wall. And the T-V set here…

Her smile widened provocatively. “You’re awfully young to be working in a hotel aren’t you, Bill? You look more like a college football player to me.”

He reddened slightly. “Well, I am a senior at the University. I just work here part time. I’ll check the towels…” He removed his youthful and slightly embarrassed gaze from her face and went into the bathroom.

When he emerged a minute later she was standing at the foot of the twin beds looking outraged. “Why on earth do you suppose they gave me a room with twin beds?
I
like to sleep in a double bed. Don’t you, Bill?”

“Well, I… I never thought much about it, I guess.”

She turned and smiled slowly. “You will, Bill. Before many more years, you’ll start thinking about it. Don’t you have a girl friend?”

“Not… not really.” He was blushing again, looking down at his hands. The way she was looking at him! There was at least ten feet of distance between them, but he felt as though he could feel the warmth of her body pressed close to his. He kept his gaze lowered, and muttered, “If there’s nothing else you want, Ma’am…” and turned toward the open door.

She had moved across to it in front of him. She closed it quietly and said, “Suppose I do want something else?”

“Well, I… I’m supposed to get you anything you want.”

She said,
“Any
thing?”

“Sure. That is…”

She laughed softly. “You’re blushing. Don’t be afraid, Bill. I’m not going to seduce you. Not at five o’clock in the afternoon in broad daylight. Besides, you’re on duty. They’d probably suspect something if you stayed too long in a woman’s room.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said desperately. “They sure would.”

“One thing you can do for me,” she said gaily, “is to open that suitcase. The latch always sticks.”

He turned hastily to the suitcase and opened it, spreading it out on the rack.

She had moved closer to him and had her bag open and was taking out a bill. He saw it was a five-spot as he took it and she let her fingertips trail over his. He held it up for her to see and said awkwardly, “Didn’t you make a mistake? There’s no need for you to do that.”

She laughed happily at his embarrassment. “It’s just money, Bill. I’ve got lots of it to spend having fun the next two weeks. Do you think I
will
have fun, Bill?” she asked a little sadly. “Or do you think I’m just a foolish, old woman for even hoping?”

“You sure aren’t old,” he told her sincerely, swallowing back a lump in his throat as he spoke. “You’re… well…”

“What am I, Bill?” She moved very close to him and his heart pounded madly as he smelled the combination of woman smell and perfume that came from her body.

He looked down at the bill he was twisting around in his fingers and gulped in an awed, small voice, “You’re beautiful.”

She stepped back from him and said lightly, “Aw, shucks. I bet you tell that to all the women… just hoping they’ll give you big tips.”

She was laughing at him, damn it. He clenched his big hands together into fists and hated her for laughing at him. Without looking at her, he dropped the five-dollar-bill on the floor and muttered, “If that’s what you think, keep your money.”

He turned his back and stalked to the door, pulled it open viciously.

Her low, intimate voice stopped him. “Don’t go away mad, Bill. When… do you get off duty?”

“Tonight… at midnight.” He stood stiffly without looking back at her. He sensed her movement and knew she had moved up very close to him, but he remained adamantly half out of the door.

Her voice purred seductively and he felt the warmth of her breath on his ear, “I have a feeling I’m going to be terribly lonesome by midnight, Bill. If you feel like a nightcap, why don’t you knock on my door?”

“I’ll… uh… see.” He hurried out into the hallway, his face flaming, and pulled the door shut firmly behind him. He knew he ought to run like hell, but he also knew with a sick certainty inside him that he would knock on her door after he went off duty at midnight.

She smiled happily as the door closed behind him, and hummed a little tune as she looked at her wrist-watch. She had promised Herb she would call him from the Miami Beach hotel after she had checked in. There was still time to catch him at his office.

She sat down in front of the telephone and lifted it, told the hotel operator, “I would like to make a person to person call to my husband in New York.” She paused. “To Mr. Herbert Harris.” She gave the operator the office number and waited.

Presently, Herbert’s voice came over the wire. “Hello. Is that you, Ellen?”

“Herb?” She made her voice light and gladsome. “How
are
you, darling?”

“Swell. Fine. Everything okay down yonder in the Southland?”

“Everything’s wonderful, darling. The sun is shining, the ocean is blue, the hotel is lovely. It was a beautiful trip down. I miss you, Herb.”

“Not as much as I’m already missing you.”

“You’ll
do all right,” she told him happily. “Let’s see now: I’m renting a car. It should be delivered to the hotel any minute, and I want to drive around a little before it gets too dark. I’m putting the hotel and car and everything on the Carte Blanche card, Herb. Is that all right?”

“Of course it’s all right.” His voice was reassuringly gruff. “What have we got credit cards for?” There was a pause. Then he said, “I love you.”

“Oh, Herb… darling. I love you, too.” She hesitated, then added perversely, “They’ve got the cutest bellboys in this hotel, darling. Collegiate football players, no less. You ought to see the one who brought me up. I don’t think I’m
really
going to be lonesome.”

“Look here, now!” His voice was peremptory and rough. Then he chuckled. “All right. Have fun. Call me again in a couple of days, huh?”

“I will, darling. And you have fun, too. Goodnight.” In New York, Herbert Harris echoed her “goodnight,” and the circuit was broken.

She replaced the instrument on its prongs and stood up, stretched her arms high above her head and sighed deeply, then went across to the windows on the East and stood looking down at the ocean for a long moment.

Finally, she shrugged and turned back into the room, peeling off her suit jacket and dropping it on the foot of one of the twin beds. She unbuttoned her skirt and stepped out of it, then crossed over to the open suitcase and selected a low-cut cocktail dress of brilliant, flame-colored silk.

The ringing of her telephone brought her out of the bathroom ten minutes later, holding a lipstick in her hand, and, when she answered it, the hotel doorman announced that her rented car was ready and waiting.

She thanked him and said she would be down immediately, and ten minutes later Justus Lawford stood appreciatively behind the desk and watched her emerge from the elevator and cross the lobby to the revolving front door. The cocktail dress, he decided, was a distinct improvement over the suit he had first seen her wearing. Then he let himself imagine her wearing only a sheer white nylon nightgown, and blinked his eyes enviously as she disappeared out the front door.

The late afternoon tropical sunlight was brilliant on the sidewalk, and the brilliantly caparisoned doorman saluted with a smile when she approached him and said, “I’m Mrs. Harris in three twenty-six. Is my car here?”

“Yes, Mrs. Harris.” He handed her a pair of keys on a ring and led her to a cream-colored convertible Pontiac with the top down. He opened the right-hand door for her to get in, and she slid under the wheel and asked him, “Does the hotel have a garage?”

“A free parking lot around on the other side, Madam.” He pointed to a sticker affixed to the windshield that said, BEACHHAVEN HOTEL. “You can either leave it with me at the door to be parked for you and we’ll have it brought around when you want it, or you can put it in the lot yourself and take it out when you want for no charge. But take the keys if you park it, Madam. There’s no attendant at night.”

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