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The Manx Murders
A Niccolo Benedetti Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
"EVIL," THE PROFESSOR SAID when it was all over, "is not a matter of sheer magnitude. It is a matter of intent, and of attitude. A man who teases a child because he likes to hear it cry may be more evil than a barbarian who slaughters thousands. It is an easy distinction to forget, amico. I myself have forgotten it for long periods of time."
"Too many times to recall. Most recently, with regard to the Pembroke brothers in Pennsylvania."
Ron Gentry knitted his brows and adjusted his spectacles. "When?"
"I have just told you."
"I mean, at what point?"
"It is important for us to say what we mean."
Still the teacher, Ron thought. Still "training" me. Not that Ron didn't admit that he (even now) still had a lot to learn. But Benedetti could get insufferably pedantic at times.
He didn't say any of this. Instead, he said, "Of course, Maestro. At what point in the investigation of the Pembroke case did you forget that evil is not a matter of sheer magnitude?"
Benedetti's smooth, brown, angular face opened up in a smile. "Very good, amico. But to answer your question, I forgot at the very beginning."
"I got to Harville the same day you did," Ron said. "I was with you every second. I didn't notice you neglecting anything."
"I said the very beginning. When I was first asked to look into the matter by Clyde Pembroke, and again when both brothers asked me to do so." Benedetti leaned back in his chair. "That, you see, was significant. The two of them hadn't been able to agree on anything since early adulthood; yet they agreed they needed help, and they agreed that they needed me.
"In my arrogance, however, I decided both times that they were simply a pair of petulant old men, and, further, that they had nothing to offer my work."
The Professor's work was nothing less than the study of the question of Human Evil. Though he had tracked murderers around the globe, with and without the help of Ron Gentry and Ron's wife, Janet Higgins, the old man always bridled when anyone described him as the "World's Greatest Detective."
"I am not a detective," he would invariably say, with more or less heat depending on how peevish he was feeling. "I am a philosopher."
"Little did I know, eh, amico? Have I not always taught you that humility is the proper frame of mind in which to seek the truth? Yet there I was, too filled with my glorious pursuit of serial killers and madmen to recognize some quiet, domestic evil when it was presented to me."
Ron had never seen the old man like this before. Perhaps he was now truly getting old. Or perhaps Benedetti's latest love affair had burned out. It was hard to tell.
"Don't let it bother you too much, Maestro," Ron said. "You got the killer, after all."
"If I'd intervened sooner, there might have been no killings at all. I should not have waited for dear Janet's friend to ask me on behalf of the government. I should not have waited for the disappearance of the birds ..."CHAPTER 2
WHEN THE PLANE LANDED yet again, Ron Gentry got out and stretched his legs. The airport was on a rockbound coast, and that water out there was the North Atlantic. He was pretty sure he was in Maine by now. Oh, sure. He was. A fellow had poked his head into the plane two airports back and asked him if he'd had anything to declare.
He could have declared he'd never been more tired in his life, or that he liked flying, but only if the plane spent a minimum thirty minutes in the air before coming in for a landing. This one had not, not since he'd taken off from Nova Scotia that morning.
What had brought him to Nova Scotia was a case. An insurance case. Ron Gentry did a lot of those. When he wasn't trailing Benedetti around the world, usually in the middle of some high-profile case that had the attention of millions, Ron filled his time doing what every other private eye did—finding witnesses for lawyers, making sure insurance claimants really were disabled, things like that. No divorce work. Before he'd made that rule, Ron had learned that the average divorce (at least the ones that got to the stage of one party or another hiring a private eye) was messier and more depressing than the average ax murder.
This particular insurance case had almost turned into a missing-persons job. The person he was supposed to interview wasn't hiding from anybody; he just had wanderlust. Ron had tracked him all over the Northeast before catching up to him in a province of what was (for the moment) still Canada. Then he began puddle-jumping back home.
Here, in fact, he was supposed to change planes for one that would take him west, back home to the city of Sparta in Central New York. Home to Janet. He missed her.
He knocked on the door of the plane, a six-seater. The pilot grinned at him. The man had white hair, and a close-clipped little mustache along his upper lip. Probably a souvenir of RCAF service in World War II. He looked old enough.
"Can I go inside?" Ron asked.
"Sure, go ahead. I just want to finish the flight reports." The pilot lifted a clipboard from his lap, held it up for Ron to see. "I'll bring your bag in pretty soon. There's plenty of time, you know."
"I know," said Ron. He had a ninety-minute layover coming up. That much he remembered. He wished he could remember where he was. "What I mean is, is it safe to walk across the concrete like this, or am I going to get chopped up by somebody's propeller?"
"We all try to avoid that, you know. Chopping things up with the propeller is bad for the plane. That's why they're—"
Ron grinned and nodded. He didn't exactly want to get into a conversation with the guy. It was late September, and it was gray and damp out here. You couldn't exactly call it foggy, but the humidity in the air and the salt mist from the ocean (he could hear waves splashing) combined to make a potion that seeped the cold right through him.
Also, he didn't want to stand out on the runway.
Ron made his way to the terminal. The terminal was an apple-green, aluminum-sided shacklike structure about forty-five yards away. If it weren't for all the antennae and the wind sock on the roof, it could have passed for a two-car garage in any semidepressed neighborhood anywhere in the country.
As he crossed the tarmac, he began to sniff. Not because he was catching cold (although he wouldn't have been surprised if he were), but because he smelled something. Soda. Candy. Something like that.
Probably his mind playing tricks. He thought he'd smelled it a time or two before, that day. He'd read somewhere that people often smelled sweet smells—melon was most usual—just before having a stroke.
Golly, he was just loaded with cheery thoughts today. At least this scent wasn't melon, he told himself. Was it? He sniffed again. No. Grape. Artificial grape, at that, like candy and soda.
Maybe I'm about to have an artificial stroke, he thought.
If he eluded the stroke, he was likely to keel over with fatigue. Candy or soda was a good idea, he decided, quickening his steps. The sugar rush would keep him from dozing off and missing his next flight. God knew how long he'd have to wait here if he did that.
He walked into the terminal. It was basically one room, with a little glassed-in place like a ticket booth built into one wall. A combination ticket booth and control tower. Or something. There were bus station plastic seats in depressingly gay pastels against the other walls, interspersed with vending machines.
The place was clean, Ron had to give it that much. There wasn't so much as a gum lump on the concrete floor. Ron was reaching into his pocket for change, confident he could eat a couple of Bar Nones and drink a Coke Classic in perfect hygienic safety.
He had the first quarter poised to go into the first slot when a voice said, "Misteh Gentry?"
Ron turned around to see the guy from the Pepperidge Farm commercials looking at him from behind the glass. Ron looked back over.
"Figured you must be. Got a message for you."
The guy said, "Ayuh," and Ron looked at him hard. When anybody lived up to stereotype, Ron always suspected he was being put on. Still, a hard look revealed no signs of mockery Ron decided there must really be people in Maine who said "Ayuh."
"Who knows I'm here?" Ron wondered aloud. "I didn't even know I would be here. I was going to call my wife and let her know."
"That's the message."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Call your wife. That's the message."
"That's all it says?"
The guy in the window consulted a piece of paper. "Tell him to call his wife,'" he read. "That's all I've got."
"Okay, thanks. Where's the phone?"
"In the corner, there."
Ron saw it, said thanks again, and headed for it, wondering what was up. He'd been away on business before; he always checked in as soon as he could. He wondered why Janet had tracked him down through the pencil-kept records of some of America's tiniest airlines to tell him to do what she had good reason to suspect he was going to do anyway.
He hoped nothing was wrong.
He dialed, waited for the bong, heard the heartwarming tape thanking him for using that particular long-distance company then finally the ringing, succeeded by Janet's low, soft greeting.
"Hello. I got here. I love you, I miss you. What's up?"
There was an odd hesitation.
"Yes, darling. I love and miss you, too."
There was laughter in her voice. Ron felt instantly better.
"It's the Professor," Janet went on.
"What about him? Is he okay?"
"Oh, he's fine. At least he was when he left."
"When he left? Where did he go?"
"Harville, Pennsylvania. He wants you to meet him there as soon as possible."
"He must be out of his mind. He's been scorning the Pembroke brothers for months now."
"He changed his mind."
"Any inkling of why?"
"They brought out the heavy artillery."
"That leathery old hide is immune to artillery."
"They sent up Flo Ackerman."
"Flo Ackerman is the heavy artillery?"
"Flo Ackerman is an old friend of mine. My best friend from college. She's with the Environmental Protection Agency."
"If she's such an old friend, why wasn't she at our wedding?"
"She was in Poland at some kind of conference. She sent us a present."
"The portable hot-air convection oven."
"Oh, that's where we got that. Did we thank her?"
"I was raised properly, Mr. Gentry. Our thank-you notes were mailed before we were done with our honeymoon."
"When did you have time?"
"Sometimes you took a shower by yourself."
Ron felt himself grinning. "That was foolish of me. Anyway, what kind of leverage does your old friend have on Benedetti, for crying out loud? And what does she have to do with the Pembrokes?"
"I can answer the second question. The Pembrokes have developed some kind of device that pulls smoke out of a smokestack magnetically, and collects it to be burned again. Or something. The EPA wants them to manufacture the device, but one of the brothers refuses, and the whole business is in an uproar. Apparently, on anything that involves building on to the plant, the brothers have to agree, and they won't because they hate each other's guts."
"We knew that. So the Professor is off at the beck and call of his adopted country again?"
"It was more than that. He said something about the birds being gone. A sign of evil, all the birds are gone."
"Maybe the cats got them." When the Professor had first been approached about the Pembrokes' problems, Ron had done a little background check. Clyde Pembroke raised cats, champion Manx cats, the kind without tails.
"Ron," Janet said. "Be serious."
"Oh, all right, if I must. Now I have to figure out how to get to Harville, Pennsylvania, from here."
"I've got that all taken care of," she said.
"Actually, I figured you would have, but I didn't want to sound as if I were taking you for granted."
"That," Janet said, "is why our marriage is the envy of the world."
"Precisely," Ron said. He was very happy. When they'd first met, Janet had been too insecure to make that sort of joke. In the years they'd been together, she was learning to take him for granted, or at least to count on the way he felt about her, and that was exactly the way he wanted it.
"Get back on the plane you just got off," Janet instructed him. "That will take you to Springfield, Massachusetts. From there, you get a flight to White Plains, New York, and from there, you can get USAir flight nine-ninety-six to Scranton. There'll be a rental car at the airport for you. Everything's all arranged."
"Great. What do I do, meet you in Scranton?"
"No. You go to the Keystone Inn in Harville and meet the Professor."
"What time do I pick you up?"
"Not for a couple of days. I've got something I've got to take care of up here."
Ron bit his lip. It was childish, he knew, but he wanted to be with his wife, and now there was going to be further delay. He didn't want to nag her about it. Not nagging was another one of the things that made their marriage the envy of the civilized world.
"Okay," he said. "I'll miss you, though. Don't take too long, all right?" Ron heard himself, and wondered if he was nagging.
If he had been, Janet let it pass. "Soon as I can," she promised. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"You'd better get moving."
"Guess so," he said. "I'll call you when I get there."
"Don't forget. Bye."
Ron said good-bye, and hung up the phone with reluctance. As far back as he could remember, he had wanted to be a policeman. Genetics, in the form of acute myopia, had gotten in the way of that, and Ron had decided on law. That plan had lasted no longer than his first encounter with Niccolo Benedetti, who had grabbed him in a hallway at Sparta University and proclaimed in a loud voice that he had the look; that he would become Benedetti's next assistant.
That had turned out even better than being a policeman. He'd never had to hand out a traffic ticket; he dealt with no department politics. He jumped straight into the heart of the most important cases the world had to offer, and he loved every minute of it. Even in his more mundane work, his day-to-day PI stuff, Ron was doing what he'd always wanted to do. He'd never faced a case with reluctance.
Now, instead of flying home to the warm arms of the woman he loved, he was off to some forgotten (but not forgotten enough) mill town in northern Pennsylvania to help the World's Greatest Detective (excuse me—philosopher) wipe the noses of a couple of superannuated crybabies who couldn't figure out how to work out their fraternal differences. Ron had never been much of a stickler about his own dignity, but somehow he felt this was beneath the dignity of Professor Niccolo Benedetti, and that bothered him.
He waved to the Pepperidge Farmer and headed out of the terminal, bumping into his pilot in the doorway. He was carrying Ron's suitcase in his hand.
"About face," Ron said. "There's been a change in plan. I'm going on to Springfield with you."
"Oh, that's nice," the pilot said. "I've got to go to Springfield, anyway, hell or high water, and I'd like the company. Good idea to get going quickly, though. I want to beat the weather."
Ron said, "Mmm." He had already noticed that the sky was darker now, a kind of slate gray. The damp cold had an autumnal edge to it.
He was close enough to touch the plane before he remembered that he'd blown his chance to get anything to eat or drink.
With a frustrated sigh, Ron climbed in and fastened his seat belt. His empty stomach started complaining, to him just as they got airborne.
"Am I crazy, or have I been smelling something at these airports?" he asked the pilot.
"Oh, that," the pilot said back over his shoulder. "We get used to it, and it's a lot better than what went on before."
"Oh. What went on—" Ron began, but just then a flash of lightning lit up the inside of the plane, and a peal of thunder seemed to toss it around the sky, and there was no more conversation on the rest of the trip.
Excerpted from The Manx Murders by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1994 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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