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Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart

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BOOK: Postmark Murder
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“My dear young lady!” Lieutenant Peabody managed to look rather shocked yet his dreamy gaze was very observant.

A curious cold kind of anger flicked Laura. She said directly, “I thought that’s what you meant.”

Matt glanced at her with a quick flash of approval.

The Lieutenant said very politely, “I’m sorry. I was only reasoning logically that now that the claimant to this fund is dead, a very large sum of money will be divided among you, the other trustee and, of course, the widow. So in a sense it is advantageous to you that Conrad Stanislowski died.”

Matt said, “You’ve forgotten the child.”

The Lieutenant eyed him. “I see. What exactly did you intend to do about her? I mean, if this man had not turned up this afternoon?”

“That’s why we brought her from Vienna, Lieutenant. I thought I made that clear. We regarded her as her father’s heir and we thought it logical to assume that he was dead. In any event, whether he was dead or alive—”

Peabody interrupted. “Let me get this straight. Did Conrad Stanley specifically mention any heirs of his nephew in his will?”

“No, he didn’t. You can take a look at the will yourself.”

“I’ll do that, Cosden,” Peabody said quietly.

Matt said, “Mr. Stanley drew it up for the most part without legal aid. He was like that. Of course, it’s a perfectly legal document, all clear and properly witnessed. He referred to his nephew by name, he had never seen him and he had had no communication with him. In fact, he must have been himself a little uncertain as to whether the nephew was still alive. Nevertheless, he had a feeling about his name and his blood relatives and, as I told you, Conrad Stanley always felt that he owed so great a debt to America for the opportunities it had given him that he wished to pass on this opportunity to his nephew. The three-year provision was, I suppose, in his mind a reasonable provision, meant to cover the very likely contingency that his nephew would not be found. Naturally, since he did not know that his nephew had a daughter, he made no specific provision for the child. And, of course, he made no provision at all to cover the exact situation which had developed, that is, that we were able to find Conrad Stanislowski’s child but were not able to find Stanislowski himself. But however the will might be interpreted, Conrad Stanley’s intent was very clear. Our idea is that the trust fund should be continued until Jonny is of age and should then be turned over to her as her father’s heir.”

“Is that settled?”

“No. It isn’t settled yet, legally. It will have to go through the courts. But I don’t think there’s much doubt of the interpretation of the intent of the will.”

“But you have agreed to this among yourselves. I mean Mrs. Stanley, Stedman and Miss March—all of you have agreed to petition the court to continue the fund for the little girl?”

Matt hesitated for a barely perceptible second; then he said, “There is, I’m sure, no disagreement among us. We have postponed the exact and legal arrangement until the date when the estate is to be settled, which would be the normal time to do anything like that. That is, in January. The point is, Lieutenant Peabody, nobody stood to gain by the death of this man who came this afternoon. You’re looking for motives, of course, but that one is out, believe me.”

The Lieutenant said quietly, “Somebody killed him.”

There was another rather long pause. The traffic roar along the Drive had dwindled as it grew late. A heavier fog must be coming in from the lake for the foghorn near the Navy pier gave a low hoarse warning through the night. Presently Lieutenant Peabody shifted his position slightly. He said, “Now let’s go over this interview you had with this man, Miss March, again. First, did you have any doubt as to his claim?”

“No,” Laura said. “At least not while he was here.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s just as I told you, Lieutenant. When he saw Jonny he didn’t speak to her and Jonny didn’t speak to him. He then asked me to tell no one of his arrival, and went away. There was something about him that I believed. I wasn’t sure I was right, though, not to tell Matt and the others of his arrival. In any event it suddenly struck me that if Jonny had recognized him she would have shown some sort of reaction. Even if at the very moment when she saw him she had been startled or perhaps frightened, still it seemed to me that later on she would have shown some sort of feeling. So then I thought that the man must be an impostor. But when I took the Polish dictionary and went to question her—”

The Lieutenant interrupted. “Did you question her?”

“No. It was then that I found her crying. So I knew that she must have recognized him and that he was her father.”

“But you did, at least for a moment, waver in your conviction that he was Stanislowski?”

“Yes. But only for a moment.”

“He gave you no hint as to what he intended to do during these few days when he wished his arrival to be kept a secret?”

“No.”

“You explained to him the entire situation—that is, that he would have to see Mrs. Stanley, Cosden, the other trustee?”

“I intended to phone to Matt then. He asked me not to. He seemed—frightened.”

“That’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Why should he be frightened? He merely came to see you, and to see that his child was safely here, in your care?”

“He seemed frightened,” she said stubbornly.

“Well,” the Lieutenant said, “that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? However, he did know all about this will.”

“Yes, of course. He had the letter which Matt left at the orphanage.”

“But he refused to show you the letter. In point of fact, he refused to show you any sort of identification.”

“He said he would have everything in the way of identification we required in a few days.”

“He didn’t say that he was going to see anybody?”

“No. He only told me his address.”

The Lieutenant said unexpectedly, “You are very young to be made a trustee for the Stanley will. You must have thought over your responsibilities very seriously. Cosden here”—he nodded at Matt—“and the other trustee, Stedman, must have warned you that there was a possibility that someone would hear of this very unusual will and attempt to claim the money.”

“Oh, yes,” Laura said. “That’s why I questioned him about his identification. I didn’t want to; I wanted to take him to Jonny immediately.”

The Lieutenant leaned forward slightly. “Miss March, are you sure that he was dead when you found him?”

“Yes! There was no question of it. I felt his pulse. And then I got a little mirror out of my compact and held it to his mouth—” The Lieutenant interrupted. “Did you try to help him?”

“No. No. There was nothing I could do. He was dead.”

“Describe the room, please.”

“The room? Why, it—it is just a room, small, not much in it. A bed, a writing table. He was on the floor, near the table. There was a chest of drawers. His suitcase stood on the floor near the bed. The overcoat he had worn was across the bed. His jacket was on a chair.” She remembered the gray shirt he wore and the red splotches on the back of it. She stopped.

“Any other details about the room?”

She could still see the brightly lighted little room in all its bareness and its tragedy. “No— Oh, yes, I think there were two glasses on the table.”

She knew, of course, that Lieutenant Peabody had already examined the room and had seen everything that she had seen. He said, however, in a very quiet, almost a casual voice, “Did the glasses look clean?”

She hesitated. “Yes. Yes, I think so. I don’t remember seeing anything in them.”

The Lieutenant said, “What exactly did you do?”

“I told you—”

“Tell me again.”

“I—felt for his pulse and tried to see with the mirror if he was still breathing. Then I glanced around the room but I really was thinking only of Jonny and that it was murder. It was—horrible. I only wanted to get away—”

“So you knew at once that it was murder?”

“How could it be anything else? The wounds were in his back.”

“The Lieutenant said, “It seems to me that your mind was working very clearly if you reasoned at once that it was murder.”

Matt said, “It was perfectly clear, Lieutenant. He couldn’t have killed himself like that. It was a physical impossibility. Anybody would have known at once that it was murder.”

“No doubt,” Peabody said. “But it must have been a great shock to you, Miss March. People do not ordinarily encounter a murder. At least people who are not in my profession. You must have been interested in the papers which he claimed to have, his passport and his papers of identification. Didn’t you look for them?”

“No! I never thought of it. All I could think of was Jonny and —and that he was murdered.”

“You are sure you didn’t—say, open the suitcase, search his coat pockets—”

“No!” Laura cried. “I didn’t!”

“What are you getting at, Lieutenant?” Matt said suddenly. “Didn’t you find any papers of identification?”

“Not a thing,” the Lieutenant said. “No passport. No letter from the orphanage. We found no letters at all, in fact. No cards of identity. He had a bill folder with about a hundred dollars in it, American money. There was nothing else. No initials on his clothing, nothing whatever to identify him except of course”—his dreamy gaze shifted to Laura—“his visit to you and his claim to be Stanislowski.”

NINE

“BUT THAT SUGGESTS—

MATT
began, but the Lieutenant interrupted. “That suggests that his murderer took such papers. It also suggests, however, that he had no such papers.” He took a small envelope from his pocket. “Another question, Miss March. Did he speak to you when you went to his room at Koska Street?”

“He was dead—”

“He didn’t die immediately after he was stabbed. You knew that. Didn’t you?”

There was a tone in his voice which bewildered Laura. “I thought he must have been alive when the woman, Maria Brown, phoned to me. Otherwise she wouldn’t have known my name. She wouldn’t have asked me to bring the doctor to help him. But he was dead when I saw him.”

“You have described the room exactly as you saw it? There’s no detail you have omitted?”

Laura thought back to that brightly lighted little room which was like a clear photographic image in her mind. “No,” she said slowly, “nothing.”

“As a matter of fact,” the Lieutenant said, “there were bloodstains on the armchair across the room—”

“I didn’t see that. I—”

“And there were a few smears of blood along the floor. It looks as if he was stabbed when he was sitting in the chair. Then he was either helped by somebody else or dragged himself along the floor toward the writing table. In any event he lived certainly for a few moments after he was stabbed.”

Matt said, “He must have been conscious when he told Maria Brown to phone to Miss March; she had Miss March’s name and telephone number. She told her to bring a doctor, and to come at once. She wouldn’t have said to bring a doctor if Stanislowski had been dead then. And don’t forget, Lieutenant, that she did run away from the house, and when she saw Miss March and Jonny on the steps she told them to go away; and she also said,” Matt said with a peculiar, hard note in his voice, “that she shouldn’t have done it.”

“So Miss March says.”

Matt’s voice cracked like a whip. “There would be no point in her lying about it. That’s why she went to the rooming house. That’s why she telephoned to the doctor.”

There was something like a whip in the Lieutenant’s voice, too. He said, “So you are going to take the stand that the Brown woman murdered him? Then when he didn’t die at once, she telephoned for help, and said to bring a doctor. And when he did die, she gathered her luggage together and ran away, after warning Miss March to go away, and after making what you interpret as being tantamount to a confession. Doesn’t it all seem rather inconsistent?”

Matt said more calmly, “I don’t say Maria Brown murdered him. I do say that he went to that address on Koska Street and the Brown woman obviously was already there. I do say that she telephoned for help. I do say that after his death, she ran away, leaving her room, giving the landlady no warning, with her rent paid ahead. And I do say that he had escaped from Poland. He told Miss March that he had been an official of some kind in the government and—”

The Lieutenant interrupted with a touch of impatience. “We’ll explore all that. It will take a little time.” He, too, went on more calmly. “Now as I understand it, the story this man told Miss March, as far as it went, squared with what you knew of— Stanislowski.”

Matt answered, “We knew very little about him. We knew that he had been born in Cracow. We knew Jonny was his child. And that’s just about all.”

“You must have tried to establish the circumstances of the child’s arrival at the orphanage.”

“Certainly. You will understand that during the years since the war relief organizations had been flooded with applications. It is very difficult, in spite of everything they can do, to keep exact and detailed records. However, a man brought Jonny to the orphanage; his name was Gustave Schmidt, not as you will realize an unusual name. He gave an address; when I was in Vienna I tried to find him but could not. In the two years since Jonny was at the orphanage, the apartment house which he gave as an address had been razed and a new and modern building erected there. I failed to discover even whether or not it was a bona fide address; it could have been and probably was but I could not discover the names of the previous tenants. In any event, I didn’t find him. Apparently he said that he was a friend of the child’s father and had brought her to the orphanage because there was no other way to care for her. He didn’t make the statement that the father was dead or if so it did not appear on the record. There happened to be nobody on the staff of the orphanage who remembered any details of the interview with Gustave Schmidt; that is comprehensible, too. They’re very busy; there is a terrific volume of such interviews. You have to undertake a thing of this kind, Lieutenant, before you get an idea of the confusion which has resulted from the great numbers of displaced persons, of families separated, moved from one place to another.”

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