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Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart

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BOOK: Postmark Murder
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Yet in the same long and observing moment Laura felt that the police lieutenant had also noted and filed away every detail of her appearance. At last his glance lingered openly on the little gay heap of colored hair ribbons which still lay on the floor. And Matt said, “I’ve already told Lieutenant Peabody all that we knew of Conrad Stanislowski, Laura. Why he came here—Jonny—all that.” He turned to Lieutenant Peabody. “Miss March has been telling me what she knows of the thing. The fact is Stanislowski was here for only a few moments. He talked very briefly to Miss March. Some time after he had gone, the Brown woman phoned for help, so Miss March went out to the rooming house and there she found him murdered. She had the little girl with her so—”

Lieutenant Peabody interrupted. “First, Miss March, I want to know about this Brown woman. Describe her, will you? Tell me exactly what she said to you over the telephone.”

SEVEN

L
AURA TOLD IT BRIEFLY
. When she had finished the short recital the Lieutenant nodded. “Maria Brown is probably an assumed name. The landlady didn’t know much about her but said she was obviously a foreigner. The landlady doesn’t know where she came from; she had a sort of part-time job in the Loop. She took the room about a month ago and has paid her rent for another few weeks. How old is she? Young? Middle-aged?”

“She looked middle-aged,” Laura said unexpectedly, “but she moved like a young woman.”

A flicker of satisfaction touched the Lieutenant’s face. “You’d know her if you saw her again.”

“Yes. I think so.”

“What did she wear?”

“A brown coat—tailored, with pockets. A black beret. She had a sort of carryall with her.”

“What kind of taxi was it? Yellow, checkered—”

“Yellow.”

The Lieutenant rose. “The telephone?”

“In the hall,” Matt said. “I’ll show you.”

At the doorway the Lieutenant turned back to Laura. “Did you see a knife in the dead man’s room or anything that could have been used as a weapon?”

“No! No, nothing like that!”

“Ah,” the Lieutenant said and went to the telephone. Matt came back into the room. Both of them heard the policeman’s terse orders. The woman, Maria Brown, was wearing a brown coat and a black beret. She was a young woman. She had taken a yellow taxi.

The Lieutenant returned. “I think we can pick her up,” he said, “although her description fits thousands of other women in a big city.” He sat down again and paused for a moment as if to let himself dive into some invisible filing cabinet and select the exact record that he wanted. He crossed one knee over the other, linked his hands together and looked at them thoughtfully. “Now then,” he said. “Mr. Cosden gave me the general background of the Stanislowski situation but I’ll just go over it quickly and see if I’ve got it all right. Conrad Stanley, the button king—”

Matt said in a sort of aside, “It wasn’t buttons really, it was a fastener, a slide and clip. He extended his patents to all sorts of things, surgical instruments, rubber tubing, mechanical bolts— that sort of thing. Then he developed, patented and manufactured a number of other devices—gadgets most of them but very successful—”

The Lieutenant nodded briskly. “The point is he made a lot of money. He was born in Poland, emigrated to America when very young, changed his name from Stanislowski to Stanley and made a fortune.”

“He came up the hard way,” Matt said. “He had nothing at all when he arrived here. He attributed everything he had made of his life to American citizenship. He was deeply and sincerely patriotic. He loved America.”

Lieutenant Peabody nodded shortly again. “Conrad Stanislowski, this murdered man, claimed to be his nephew. The little girl then is Stanley’s great-niece.”

“Yes,” Matt said shortly. “We’re sure of that. Stanislowski, however, refused to show Miss March any sort of identification.”

Lieutenant Peabody glanced at Laura thoughtfully. “I see,” he said. “Well, we’ll get to his talk with you in a moment. About Conrad Stanley now—how old was Conrad Stanley when he died?”

Matt replied, “Up in his sixties.”

“I understand he left a widow. Is she about Stanley’s age?”

“Well,” Matt said, “no.” Laura thought she saw a flicker of indecision in Matt’s face as if he considered preparing the Lieutenant for Doris’ youth and beauty. If so he contented himself by saying only, “She’s younger. In fact, they were married only a couple of years before Stanley died.”

Matt, of course, had every reason to remember the exact date.

The Lieutenant said, “Second wife?”

“No, he’d never married before. I think he’d been too busy to consider marriage. He concentrated on his business, you see; he not only invented all these things, he manufactured them, too.”

“Ah,” said the Lieutenant politely, and continued. “As I understand it he died three years ago. He left his money divided, half to his wife and half to be held in trust and to be handed over to his nephew, this Conrad Stanislowski.”

“As I told you,” Matt said, “there was a provision to that. His nephew was to have this trust fund only in the event the nephew would leave Poland, come to America, take out citizenship papers and live in America. Conrad Stanley felt it was a sort of debt of gratitude that he wanted to pay. Also, since he had no children, I think he wanted to make it possible for his family to be continued here in America where he had always lived. As I told you he was a very patriotic man and a very happy man.”

Lieutenant Peabody did not this time say, “Ah,” politely, agreeably and merely, Laura thought, as a kind of punctuation, allowing him to continue his main line of questioning. He eyed Matt for a moment and said, “Any other relatives besides this Conrad Stanislowski?”

“None there’s any record of. He had two brothers, one in Poland, father to the nephew; he died before the war. The other brother came to America with Conrad, went to work in a steel mill in Pittsburgh, was killed in an accident—oh, years ago.”

“Unmarried?”

Matt looked startled. “Why—I don’t know. Do you, Laura?”

She tried to think back to Conrad’s tales of his early days. “He talked of his brother. I don’t remember much of it. But I’m sure if the brother had married, Conrad would have helped his widow—”

“Or his children,” Lieutenant Peabody said.

Matt said, “There almost certainly was no widow, Lieutenant, and no children. But we can make certain of it.”

Lieutenant Peabody nodded dreamily. “I was only thinking of —persons who might have an interest in this murdered man’s claims. As it stands, the only Stanley blood relative now is this child, Jonny Stanislowski?”

“Right,” Matt said.

“Did Mr. Stanley know about her when he made his will?”

“No, he knew nothing of her. In fact, we knew nothing of her until this fall.”

Again Lieutenant Peabody seemed to think for a moment. Then he said, “Well, we’ll talk about that later, too. What about her mother, Conrad Stanislowski’s wife?”

“We know nothing about her, but the way Stanislowski spoke of her to Miss March suggests that she died when Jonny was a baby.”

Lieutenant Peabody looked at Laura. “What exactly did he say, Miss March? Tell me the whole story. You’d better begin at the beginning. Cosden says that you had no warning of Stanislowski’s appearance. He says that all of you thought he was either still in Poland or, since his child turned up in an orphanage in Vienna, that he was dead.”

“Yes,” Laura said. “He just—came here this afternoon. He dropped out of the blue. I didn’t expect him, I knew nothing about him. He—knocked on the door.”

Lieutenant Peabody nodded. “Go on. Tell me please, Miss March, everything you can remember. Everything he said.”

She told it all again as she had told Matt. Neither of the men seemed to move as she talked. Except for her voice the room was very quiet; she could hear like a remote accompaniment the deep murmur of traffic sounds from Lake Shore Drive. Again when she had finished, Lieutenant Peabody seemed to review all the record with which she had now provided him and had instantly stored it away in his filing cabinet, as she talked. He said finally to Matt, “How did you get hold of the child?”

“Well,” Matt said, “it was a long process. In spite of all our efforts we were never successful in communicating with Stanislowski.”

Peabody gave a little short nod which seemed to be one of his characteristics; it was very brief and effortless, as if he wished to conserve his energy. He said to Laura, “He told you that, in fact, your letters may have made it only harder for him to escape?”

Laura nodded. “Ah,” Peabody said and turned to Matt. “Go on, please.”

Matt said, “We had, of course, got in touch with all the relief agencies. During the war, as you know, thousands of Polish people were shifted around from one camp to another, displaced persons. We thought it possible that Conrad Stanislowski had turned up in one of these camps or at some relief agency. In a last effort to comb the various agencies for him we discovered that there was a child by the name of Jonny Stanislowski in Vienna, and according to her birth certificate which was on file at the orphanage, she was the child of Conrad Stanislowski— our Conrad Stanislowsky, the son of Stefan, Conrad Stanley’s brother—”

Laura listened while Matt explained it in detail. Lieutenant Peabody nodded. “No doubt of the child’s identity,” he said. “What did you do then?”

“I flew to Vienna. The American Army Headquarters and the relief organization helped me straighten things out. She was his child all right but her appearance at the orphanage was a little on the mysterious side. Certainly her father had not brought her there, she had arrived in the escort of a man named Schmidt. We assumed either that her father was alive and for some reason had no way to care for her, or that he was dead and some friend of his had managed to get her into the orphanage. This was the most reasonable theory. And, of course, as the will reads, Stanislowski could claim the fund only if he fulfilled the conditions. He didn’t turn up in America; the reason didn’t affect the interpretation of the will. On the other hand—Jonny was his child.”

Lieutenant Peabody nodded. “So you felt obliged to bring her home?”

“Certainly,” Matt said. “I—we couldn’t leave the child in an orphanage! Obviously the thing to do was to bring her back to America. Besides, it was a question whether or not her father was dead; if he were dead, then she was her father’s heir, and we felt that there was no question of Conrad Stanley’s intention in establishing the fund.”

“Ah,” Lieutenant Peabody observed.

Matt hesitated for a second as if it had been a question. “It’s a perfectly clear situation,” he said. “If her father was dead—”

“But you don’t seem to have been able to prove that he was either dead or alive,” Peabody said mildly. “However—please go on. You brought the child here.”

“Yes. The American Army Headquarters helped cut red tape. When I took her away I left the letter outlining the whole situation with the head of the orphanage. There was full information about the Conrad Stanley will in it, and the names of Doris Stanley, Mr. Stanley’s widow, and, of course, the name of Miss March and the other trustee, Charlie Stedman. We really had nothing on which to base a hope that Conrad Stanislowski himself would turn up in America, ever. At the same time we had a moral and humane responsibility for the child. And there was also the consideration that if her father were dead, she was his heir. In any event we all knew what Conrad Stanley would have wished us to do.”

The Lieutenant turned to Laura. “Now, as I understand it, Miss March, this man this afternoon told you that he had received that letter?”

Laura said, “Yes. And he must have had it, otherwise he wouldn’t have known my name. He wouldn’t have known that Jonny is here.”

The Lieutenant neither agreed nor disagreed; he said thoughtfully to Matt, “There must have been, then, a sort of time limit to this will. That is, you were prepared to accept it as a fact, either that Conrad Stanislowski was dead or that he was not going to arrive here and take out American citizenship papers and claim this fund.”

Matt said, “We had to come to some sort of conclusion. You are quite right, Lieutenant. There was a time limit to the will— three years. That is, if Stanislowski did not turn up in that time or couldn’t get to America or we had no word from him, then the Stanislowski provision of the will was to be waived.”

“Three years,” Lieutenant Peabody said. “You say Conrad Stanley died three years ago. The time limit is about up.”

“Yes. In January.”

After a moment Lieutenant Peabody said thoughtfully, “So he got here just in time. What was to happen to this fund if nobody turned up to claim it?”

Matt replied again, “That’s all in the will. After a three-year wait, if Conrad Stanislowski failed to turn up and claim the money, or if we could not discover him, then his portion of the estate was to be divided between other heirs.”

“What other heirs?”

Matt said too easily and too matter-of-factly all at once, “It would have gone in equal shares to Mrs. Stanley, to Charlie Stedman and to”—he nodded at Laura—“Miss March.”

“I see.” The Lieutenant looked dreamily at Laura.

Matt said, “Miss March was a sort of ward of Stanley’s, that is, not legally, but Conrad Stanley was a friend of her father’s and helped Laura with her education. Laura then worked for him as his secretary. That is why he made her a co-trustee for the Stanislowski fund. Charlie Stedman is the other trustee. I think I told you that. He is a manufacturer, and an old friend of Conrad Stanley’s.”

There was again a short silence in the room. Laura sensed rather than saw a kind of uneasiness in Matt; perhaps it lay in his stillness, or in the intent yet somehow guarded way he looked at a tiny silver box of matches he was turning in his hand.

Then Lieutenant Peabody said quietly, “It’s odd that you should find the claimant to all this money murdered, isn’t it, Miss March?”

EIGHT

T
HERE WAS A LITTLE
clatter as Matt dropped the silver box on the table and rose. Laura said in a suddenly brittle voice that did not seem to belong to her, “Lieutenant Peabody, I did not kill Conrad Stanislowski in order to get a third of his money.”

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