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Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart

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BOOK: Postmark Murder
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“But as to Stanislowski,” the Lieutenant said, “your most hopeful theory was that he was alive and hoped to escape Poland and had sent his child ahead in the hope of eventually getting himself and Jonny out of Vienna.”

Matt nodded. “It was only a possibility.”

The Lieutenant said to Laura, “But it was in fact the exact story which this man this afternoon told you.”

“Yes,” Laura said.

“And which you had discussed in detail many times with”—he nodded toward Matt—“Cosden and the other two people who are directly interested in the Stanislowski provision.”

Matt said, again too easily somehow, too quietly, “Certainly we had discussed it, Lieutenant. But we had discussed the other possibilities also, that is, that Stanislowski was either dead or for some reason could not care for Jonny. The point is, so far as settling the will is concerned, it didn’t matter. If Stanislowski did not arrive here before January, the Stanislowski provision was out so far as he was concerned. That, it seemed to all of us, was automatic. On the other hand, as I told you, we all felt that Conrad Stanley’s intent was perfectly clear and that therefore we should turn the fund over to Jonny, to be held in trust for her until she was of age.”

“But you’ve done nothing definite about that?”

Laura felt that Matt was keeping down a rising flare of temper. He said, “There is nothing we could do until January.”

The Lieutenant was insistent. “But you have all agreed to this?”

Matt’s mouth looked hard. He said in a level voice, “I’ve told you the exact situation, Lieutenant. You understand I have nothing to do with this directly. I’m only Mrs. Stanley’s lawyer but it would devolve upon me to assist in carrying out the provision of Conrad Stanley’s will.”

“To the best of Mrs. Stanley’s interests,” the Lieutenant said in a mild way.

“Certainly. You must realize, Lieutenant, that all of us feel a strong affection and responsibility for Jonny.”

“No doubt,” the Lieutenant said politely, and added almost absently, “Of course, her arrival does take a large sum of money from the estate which would otherwise have been divided among Mr. Stedman, Mrs. Stanley and Miss March.” He opened the envelope in his hands. He took from it a scrap of white, stained with blotches which were a kind of rusty, dry brown. It was a woman’s handkerchief, a small square of linen neatly hemstitched. He held it toward Laura, “Does this belong to you, Miss March?”

The rusty, brownish blotches were dried blood. She shrank back from it. “No!”

“You said you didn’t try to help Conrad. Are you sure you didn’t take your handkerchief and hold it to the stab wounds?”

“Oh, no,” Laura cried. “No!” Again the bright clear picture of the room returned to her and this time, with it, the recollection of a scrap of white, stained then with bright red. “That was on the floor! I remember now. I saw it as I was leaving. I looked around the room, and I saw that but—”

“Why didn’t you tell me about it when you described the room?”

“I forgot. I simply forgot.” It was the truth; it didn’t sound like it.

“It obviously belonged to the Brown woman,” Matt began, and the Lieutenant said rather wearily, “Oh, yes, yes, the Brown woman. I’d like to take a look at your handkerchiefs, if you please, Miss March. Not that that is likely to prove anything. I expect any woman has some odd handkerchiefs. They don’t all match, now do they?”

Laura glanced at Matt and he gave a sort of shrug and nodded slightly. She rose and led the Lieutenant back to the hall into her own bedroom.

“Jonny is sleeping,” she said softly to the Lieutenant and nodded toward the closed door of Jonny’s room. The Lieutenant eyed the door for a moment. “I’d like to talk to the child.”

“Not now,” Matt said firmly. “You can talk to her later but not tonight.”

The Lieutenant yielded. He crossed Laura’s neat, small bedroom to the chest of drawers where Laura took out all her supply of handkerchiefs, in their little silken cases. It was with a feeling of something like nightmare that she put them on a table and watched the Lieutenant set them out one by one, his fingers unexpectedly deft and light. A faint scent of lilacs came from the sachet in the cases. Matt stood watching, his hands in his pockets, his face inscrutable as the Lieutenant went one by one through the handkerchiefs, glancing now and then at the stained, crumpled handkerchief he had put down on the table beside the others. There was no handkerchief which matched it exactly.

With incredulity and yet with a kind of queer, cold fear somewhere within her, Laura watched the process. But as the Lieutenant had said, of course, it didn’t prove anything. The bloodstained handkerchief was simply a woman’s handkerchief with a small hemstitched edge. Laura—Doris, anybody—could have had a handkerchief exactly like it.

Whatever the Lieutenant thought of the little display he said nothing. But then without a word he wandered around the bedroom, pausing to look down at the bedside table with its little assortment of engagement pad and ash tray, cigarette box and clock; he paused to examine a photograph of Laura’s father, a snapshot of a youthful figure in a flyer’s uniform, his eyes squinted against the sun.

It was a pleasant room, airy and light, with its white curtains and one or two pieces of furniture which had belonged in Laura’s home—her own four-poster bed which she had had as a child, the little dressing table which had belonged to her mother, with its old-fashioned, curved drawers. Laura had taken pleasure in furnishing the bedroom, in buying the scattered green rugs, in selecting the wallpaper with its big red cabbage roses and the white and green cover for the lounge chair. It was not a luxurious room, but it was feminine and orderly. It increased her sense of nightmare incredulity to see a police officer strolling around that room—looking for evidence of murder. It wasn’t true; it couldn’t happen. But it was happening, because still without a word Lieutenant Peabody strolled out of the room and into the little kitchen.

If he were looking for a knife, he’d find it, Laura thought; there were small knives in the cutlery drawer. He did not open the drawer. He merely glanced in a long and leisurely fashion around him and turned away.

When they had got back to the living room and still the Lieutenant said nothing, and only looked into space in a thoughtful and preoccupied way as if he were still intently, filing away records in that invisible filing cabinet, Matt dived directly into the implications of the oddly cursory yet terrifying search.

“Lieutenant Peabody, it’s your job to investigate, we understand that, but let me ask you this. If Miss March killed that man and removed traces of his identity, would she have done anything at all that she later did? Wouldn’t she have simply returned here and told nobody? Would she have telephoned to me and reported murder? Who would know that he had ever been here at all? And more than that, if she had intended to murder him, would she have taken the child with her?
Would
she have phoned for a doctor and asked him to go there?”

The Lieutenant said coolly, “On a hypothetical basis, Mr. Cosden, and in answer to your last question, I’ll say, yes, she might have phoned for the doctor. It would have been a rather clever move, in fact. The doctor was out on a call; the chances were that he wouldn’t arrive at Koska Street for some time and she’d get there first. Yes, to call a doctor who could almost certainly be counted on not to arrive until after a man is dead— murdered”—he nodded—“I’d call that a clever sort of move. Almost as good as an alibi.”

TEN

“BUT I DIDN’T!” LAURA
cried. Her throat felt oddly numb, her voice did not seem to belong to her or to carry any weight. “I phoned to the doctor but I did that because Maria Brown asked me to. I didn’t kill him.”

Matt said, “It would be a very dangerous move, too, Lieutenant, to phone for a doctor. He might have arrived before Miss March, he might have arrived at exactly the time of the murder.”

“If he had arrived before the murder, that could have been postponed. Miss March says that the house was very quiet; it would be a logical assumption that a lodging house in that district would be quiet at that hour of the afternoon, when most of the roomers had not yet returned from work. She would have been able to hear the doctor’s approach. Remember, it takes only a minute or two to kill a man. But if the doctor had arrived before the murder, then it could have been postponed. Wait—” The Lieutenant put up a hand to check Matt’s protest. “I’m not saying that happened! I’m only saying that phoning to the doctor, which of course we can confirm, does not automatically clear Miss March. Remember this, Cosden, she found Stanislowski and she was the only one of you who knew he was here in Chicago. Or at least—admits it.”

“Believe me,” Matt said, “I didn’t know it. Mrs. Stanley didn’t know it. Charlie Stedman didn’t know it. Miss March said that she told none of us and that’s the truth. Every word that Miss March has told you is the truth.”

“I’m not saying it isn’t.” Suddenly Peabody’s voice became reasonable and rather friendly in a curiously disarming way. “See here, Cosden, I’m only doing my job. I’ll have to talk to the other two people interested in this man’s arrival. When I say that Miss March is the only one who admits knowing of him, I meant naturally that perhaps someone else, perhaps someone you don’t know, perhaps none of these three people but certainly someone in Chicago, knew that Stanislowski was here and had some reason to murder him.”

“I can’t deny that.” Matt’s eyes were blazing but he still kept his voice quiet. “But consider this, Lieutenant. If Miss March had murdered him, as she didn’t, all she’d have had to do was keep quiet about the whole affair. Tell nobody that he had come to see her, refuse to go to the rooming house when the Brown woman phoned—”

“The child saw him when he came here,” Lieutenant Peabody said dryly.

“That’s no good. Jonny is only learning to speak English. Even if she had mentioned her father, say, to me, would I have believed that he had in fact been here? Wouldn’t I have believed rather that she was making some childish game or joke with me, or some reference in her mixture of English and Polish which I couldn’t understand? Wouldn’t I have believed Miss March if she denied it?”

Lieutenant Peabody folded the envelope holding the ugly stained little handkerchief and put it carefully in his pocket. He said in a faraway voice, “I’m sure you’d have believed Miss March.”

For some obscure reason it seemed to take the wind out of Matt’s sails. He hesitated, checked for a fraction of a second, and then went on too quickly. “The fact is there’d have been no credible witness to Stanislowski’s arrival here in Chicago. Somebody would have found him murdered, the landlady or somebody would have reported it to the police. You yourself say there were no means of identification found. Eventually he’d have gone down on the police record as an unidentified man found murdered in a rooming house. Nobody would ever have known anything more than that about him. That’s the fact, Lieutenant, and you can’t deny it.”

“Can’t I?” The Lieutenant eyed Matt thoughtfully. Then he said with that disarming air of frankness, “Well, it’s a fact I’d like to identify this man. We’ll have to question the child, you know. An interpreter might help; I’ll get hold of one. Surely the child knew whether or not he was her father, and if she makes an identification that will simplify our problem to a degree.”

Matt said tersely, “You mean that if Jonny says he was her father, you will include all of us in your list of suspects?”

“That’s my business, Cosden,” the Lieutenant said. “But I don’t mind saying that I’ll include anybody on the list of suspects who had a motive for getting rid of Stanislowski.”

Matt was still angry. “Miss March has given you an exact account of what happened. It would help your task of gathering evidence very much if you would take it as the truth.”

“I tell you, I’m not accusing Miss March. And if I did arrest her,” Peabody said softly, “I expect you’d turn up armed with the law and get her out. At least you’d try it.” He turned to Laura and said abruptly, “Why exactly is the child here? You didn’t tell me that. It seems to me Mrs. Stanley would have been the logical person to take care of her.”

The Lieutenant merely looked at her but she had a curious feeling of invisible tentacles reaching out into the air for information.

Matt supplied it briefly. “Conrad Stanley was an old friend and a very close friend of Laura’s father. His name was Peter March. He was killed in the war. Laura’s mother died shortly after that. There was very little money; Conrad Stanley stepped in and gave Laura an education. When she had finished school, he employed her as his secretary. Does that answer your question, Lieutenant Peabody?”

Peabody nodded shortly. “So you gave up your job to see to the child?” he asked Laura.

“Yes,” Laura said.

Again Matt explained. “Our intention is to reimburse her for any expenses for the child from the estate when it is settled next month.”

“And how about your job?” Lieutenant Peabody asked Laura, very politely and quietly and yet with a kind of skeptical undertone.

Laura said, “I’ll get another one.”

Matt said, “Our plan is to put Jonny in school somewhere. We’ll see to it that Laura has a job.”

“I see,” the Lieutenant said. “Now, one other question, Miss March. As I understand it, when this man Stanislowski left, you didn’t promise him in so many words to keep his presence a secret. That’s what you told me, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I—I implied a promise, at least he took it as such and went away.”

“It seems to me that you’d have gone straight to the telephone, no matter what he said about keeping his presence a secret. It seems to me that you’d have thought it your duty to telephone to Cosden here, and to the other trustee and to Mrs. Stanley, all three of them, and tell them right away that the man you’d been looking for had turned up. Why didn’t you?”

“Because,” Laura said, “I—believed him. He said there were reasons; he said that he’d come forward in a few days. I believed him.”

“I see,” Peabody said in a way that suggested that he didn’t see at all. He turned to Matt. “Cosden, will you give me Mrs. Stanley’s address and Mr. Stedman’s?”

BOOK: Postmark Murder
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