By Ellery Queen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1969 Ellery Queen
All rights reserved.
Mr Queen Discovers America
Ellery Queen stood knee-deep in luggage on the Wrightsville station platform and thought: 'This makes me an admiral. Admiral Columbus.' The station was a squatty affair of black-red brick. On a rusty hand truck under the eaves two small boys in torn blue overalls swung their dirty legs and chewed gum in unison, staring at him without expression. The gravel about the station was peppered with horse droppings. Cramped two-story frame houses and little stoop-shouldered shops with a crackerbarrel look huddled to one side of the tracks—the city side, for up a steep street paved with square cobbles Mr Queen could see taller structures beyond and the fat behind of a retreating bus. To the other side of the station there were merely a garage, an extrolley labeled PHIL'S DINER, and a smithy with a neon sign. The rest was verdure and delight.
'Country looks good, by jake,' murmurs Mr Queen enthusiastically. 'Green and yellow. Straw colors. And sky of blue, and clouds of white'—bluer blue and whiter white than he recalled ever having seen before. City—country; and here they met, where Wrightsville station flings the twentieth century into the astonished face of the land.
'Yes, sir, my boy. You've found it. Porter!'
The Hollis Hotel, Upham House, and the Kelton among them could not offer the stranger at their desks one pitiful room. It seemed boom times had hit Wrightsville two jumps ahead of Mr Queen. The last room at the Hollis was filched from under his nose by a portly man with 'defense industry' written all over him. Undiscouraged, Mr Queen checked his bags at the Hollis, ate a leisurely lunch in the Coffee Shoppe, and read a copy of the Wrightsville Record—Frank Lloyd, Publisher and Editor. He memorized as many of the names mentioned in the Record as seemed to have local prominence, bought two packs of Pall Malls and a Wrightsville street map from Mark Doodle's son Grover at the lobby cigar stand, then struck out across the redcobbled Square under the hot sun.
At the horse trough in the center of the Square, Mr Queen paused to admire Founder Wright. Founder Wright had once been a bronze, but he now looked mossy, and the stone trough on which he stood had obviously been unused for years. There were crusty bird droppings on the Founder's Yankee nose. Words on a plaque said that Jezreel Wright had founded Wrightsville when it was an abandoned Indian site, in the Year of Our Lord 1701, had tilled the land, started a farm, and prospered. The chaste windows of the Wrightsville National Bank, John F. Wright, Pres., smiled at Mr Queen from across the Square, and Mr Queen smiled back: O Pioneers!
Then he circumnavigated the Square (which was round); peered into Sol Gowdy's Men's Shop, the Bon Ton Department Store, Dunc MacLean—Fine Liquors, and William Ketcham—Insurance; examined the three gilded balls above the shop of J. P. Simpson, the jardinieres of green and red liquid in the window of the High Village Pharmacy, Myron Garback, Prop., and turned to survey the thoroughfares which radiated like spokes from the hub of the Square. One spoke was a broad avenue: the red-brick Town Hall, the Carnegie Library, a glimpse of park, tall praying trees, and beyond, a cluster of white new WPA-looking buildings. Another spoke was a street lined with stores and full of women in house dresses and men in work clothes. Consulting his street map, Mr Queen ascertained that this avenue of commerce was Lower Main; so he made for it. Here he found the Record office; he peered in and saw the big press being shined up by old Phinny Baker after the morning's run. He sauntered up Lower Main, poking his nose into the crowded five-and-dime, past the new Post Office building, past the Bijou Theater, past J. C. Pettigrew's real estate office; and he went into Al Brown's Ice Cream Parlor and had a New York College Ice and listened to the chatter of tanned boys and red-cheeked girls of high-school age. He heard Saturday night 'dates' being arranged right and left—for Danceland, in the Grove, which he gathered was at Wrightsville Junction three miles down the line, admission one dollar per person, 'and for pete's sake Marge keep your mother away from the parking lot, will you? I don't wanna get caught like two weeks ago and have you start bawling!'
Mr Queen strolled about the town, approving and breathing deeply of wet leaves and honeysuckle. He liked the stuffed eagle in the Carnegie Library vestibule; he even liked Miss Aikin, the elderly Chief Librarian, who gave him a very sharp look, as if to say: 'Don't you try to sneak a book out of here!' He liked the twisting narrow streets of Low Village, and he went into Sidney Gotch's General Store and purchased a package of Old Mariner Chewing Tobacco just as an excuse to smell the coffee and rubber boots and vinegar, the cheeses and kerosene. He liked the Wrightsville Machine Shop, which had just reopened, and the old cottonmill factory, diagonally across from the Low Village World War Memorial. Sidney Gotch told him about the cotton mill. It had been a cotton mill, then an empty building, then a shoeshop, then an empty building again; he could see for himself the splintery holes in the windows where the Low Village boys threw rocks in summer and snowballs in winter on their way to that vine-covered building up Lower Dade Street there—St John's Parochial School. But now 'specials' prowled around the mill with long fat holsters strapped to their thighs and eyes in their heads that would not smile; the boys, said Sidney Gotch, just yelled 'Yahhhh!' and took it out on Mueller's Feed Store three doors up the block, near the corner of Whistling Avenue. And the woollen mill had taken on extra help—army orders. 'Boom times, brother! No wonder you couldn't get a room. I've got an uncle from St. Paul and a cousin from Pittsburgh doublin' up with me and Betsy right now!' In fact, Mr Queen liked everything. He glanced up at the big clock on the Town Hall steeple. Two-thirty. No room, eh? Walking rapidly, he made his way back to Lower Main and neither paused nor pried until he reached the shop marked J. C. PETTIGREW, REAL ESTATE.
His number twelves up on his desk, J.C. was napping when Mr Queen came in. He had just come from the weekly Chamber of Commerce lunch at Upham House, and he was full of Ma Upham's fried chicken. Mr Queen woke him up. 'My name,' said Mr Queen, 'is Smith, I've just landed in Wrightsville, and I'm looking for a small furnished house to rent on a month-to-month basis.'
'Glad to know you, Mr Smith,' said J.C., struggling into his gabardine 'office' jacket. 'My, it's warm! Furnished house, hey? I can see you're a stranger. No furnished houses in Wrightsville, Mr Smith.'
'Then perhaps a furnished apartment—'
'Same thing.' J.C. yawned. 'Excuse me! Certainly is hotting up, isn't it?'
'It certainly is,' said Ellery.
Mr Pettigrew leaned back in his swivel chair and picked a strand of chicken out of his teeth with an ivory pick, after which he examined it intently. 'Housing's a problem. Yes, sir. People pouring into town like grain in a hopper. To work in the Machine Shop especially. Wait a minute!' Mr Queen waited. 'Course!' J.C. flicked the shred of chicken off his pick delicately. 'Mr Smith, you superstitious?'
Mr Queen looked alarmed. 'I can't say I am.'
'In that case,' said J.C. brightening; then he stopped. 'What business you in? Not that it makes any difference, but—'
Ellery hesitated. 'I'm a writer.'
The real estate man gaped. 'You write stories?'
'That's it, Mr Pettigrew. Books and such.'
'Well, well,' beamed J.C. 'I'm real honored to meet you, Mr Smith. Smith ... Now that's funny,' said J.C. 'I'm a reading man myself, but I just don't seem to recollect an author named—what did you say your first name was, Mr Smith?'
'I didn't say, but it's Ellery. Ellery Smith.'
'Ellery Smith,' said J.C., concentrating.
Mr Queen smiled. 'I write under a pen name.'
'Ah! Name of ...?' But when Mr Pettigrew saw that Mr 'Smith' simply kept smiling, he rubbed his jaw and said: 'Course you'd give references?'
'Would three months' rent in advance give me a good character in Wrightsville, Mr Pettigrew?'
'Well, I should smile!' grinned J.C. 'You come with me, Mr Smith. I've got exactly the house you're looking for.'
'What did you mean by asking me if I'm superstitious?' asked Ellery as they climbed into J.C.'s pea-green coupé and drove off. 'Is the house haunted?'
'Uh ... no,' said J.C. 'Though there is a sort of a queer yarn connected with that house—might give you an idea for one of your books now, hey?' Mr 'Smith' agreed; it might. 'This house, it's next door to John F.'s own place on the Hill. John F. Wright, that is. He's president of the Wrightsville National. Oldest family in town. Well, sir, three years ago one of John F.'s three daughters—the middle one, Nora—Nora got herself engaged to this Jim Haight. Jim was head cashier at John F.'s bank. Wasn't a local boy—he'd come to Wrightsville from New York a couple of years before that with fine recommendations. Started out as an assistant teller, and he was making good. Steady boy, Jim; stayed away from the bad element, went to the library a lot, didn't have much fun, I s'pose—a movie at Louie Cahan's Bijou, or standing around Band Concert Nights with the rest of the boys, watching the girls parade up and down eating popcorn, and joshing 'em. Worked hard—plenty of up-and-go, Jim had, and independent? Say, I never saw a lad stand on his two feet like Jim did. We all liked him a heap.' Mr Pettigrew sighed, and Ellery wondered why such a glowing subject should depress him.
'I take it Miss Nora Wright liked him more than anyone,' said Ellery, to grease the wheels of the story.
That's a fact,' muttered J.C. 'Wild about the boy. Nora'd been the quiet kind before Jim came along—has to wear specs, and I guess it made her think she wasn't attractive to boys, 'cause she used to sit in the house while Lola and Patty went out with fellows—reading or sewing or helping her ma with organization work. Well, sir, Jim changed all that. Jim wasn't the kind to be stopped by a pair of eye-glasses. Nora's a pretty girl, and Jim started to rush her, and she changed ... my, she changed!' J.C. frowned. 'S'pose I'm blabbing too much. Anyway, you get the idea. When Jim and Nora got engaged, the town said it was a fine match, especially after what had happened to John's oldest daughter, Lola.'
Ellery said quickly: 'And what was that, Mr Pettigrew?'
J.C. swung the coupé into a broad country road. They were well away from town now, and Ellery feasted his eyes on the succulent greens of the countryside.
'Did I say something about Lola?' asked the real estate man feebly. 'Why ... Lola, she'd run away from home. Eloped with an actor from a visiting stock company. After a while she came back home to Wrightsville. Divorced.' J.C. set his lips stubbornly, and Mr Queen realized he wasn't going to hear any more about Miss Lola Wright. 'Well, anyway,' continued J.C., 'John and Hermione Wright decided to give Jim and their Nora a furnished house for a wedding present. John cut off part of his property near his own house and built. Right next door, 'cause Hermy wanted Nora as close by as possible, seeing she'd ... lost one of her girls already.'
'Lola,' nodded Mr Queen. 'Divorced, you said? Came back home afterwards. Then Lola Wright doesn't live with her father and mother any more?'
'No,' said J.C. shortly. 'So John built Jim and Nora a sweet little six-roomer next door. Hermione was putting in rugs and furniture and drapes and linen and silver—the works—when all of a sudden it happened.'
'What happened?' asked Mr Queen.
'To tell the truth, Mr Smith, nobody knows,' said the real estate man sheepishly. 'Nobody 'cepting Nora Wright and Jim Haight. It was the day before the wedding and everything looked fine as corn silk, when Jim Haight ups and leaves town! Fact. Ran away. That was three years ago, and he's not been back since.' They were on a winding, rising road. Ellery saw wide old houses on voluptuous lawns, and elms and maples and cypress and weeping willows taller than the houses. Mr Pettigrew scowled at the Hill road. 'The next morning John F. found a note of resignation on his desk at the bank, but not a word as to why Jim'd skipped town. And Nora wouldn't say a blessed word. Just shut herself up in her bedroom and wouldn't come out for her father or mother or sister Patricia or even old Ludie, the hired girl who's practically brought the three Wright girls up. Nora just kept bawling in her room. My daughter Carmel and Patty Wright are thick as molasses, and Pat told Carmel the whole thing. Pat did a heap of crying herself that day. I guess they all did.'
'And the house?' murmured Mr Queen.
J.C. drove his car to the side of the road and shut off the motor. 'Wedding was called off. We all thought Jim'd turn up, thinking it was just a lovers' spat; but he didn't. Whatever broke those two up must have been awful important!' The real estate man shook his head. 'Well, there was the new house, all ready to be lived in, and no one to live in it. Terrible blow to Hermione. Hermy let out that Nora'd jilted Jim. But people did keep jawing about it, and after a while ...' Mr Pettigrew paused.
'Yes?' prompted Ellery.
'After a while people began saying Nora'd gone ... crazy and that that little six-roomer was jinxed.'
J.C. smiled a sickly smile. 'Funny how some folks are, isn't it? Thinking the house had anything to do with Jim and Nora's breaking up! And of course ain't nothing wrong with Nora. I mean, she's not crazy. Crazy!' J.C. snorted. 'That wasn't the whole of it. When it looked like Jim wasn't coming back, John F. decided to sell that house he'd built for his daughter. Pretty soon along came a buyer—relative of Judge Martin's wife Clarice, man named Hunter of the Boston branch of the family. I was handling the deal.'
J.C. lowered his voice. 'Mr Smith, I give you my word I'd taken this Mr Hunter over to the house for a last inspection before signing the papers, and we were looking around the living room and Mr Hunter was saying, "I don't like the sofa just there," when he gets kind of a scared look all of a sudden and grabs his heart and falls down right in front of me! Died on the spot! I didn't sleep for a week.' He swabbed his forehead. 'Doc Willoughby said it was heart failure. But that's not what the town said. The town said it was the house. First Jim ran away, then a buyer dropped dead. And to make it worse, some smartaleck of a cub reporter on Frank Lloyd's Record wrote up Hunter's death and he called the house "Calamity House" in his yarn. Frank fired him. Frank's friendly with the Wrights.'
'Of all the nonsense!' chuckled Mr Queen.
'Just the same, nobody'd buy,' muttered J.C. 'John offered to rent. Nobody'd rent. Too unlucky, people said. Still want to rent, Mr Smith?'
'Yes, indeed,' said Mr Queen cheerfully. So J.C. started his car again. 'Family seems ill-fated,' observed Ellery. 'One daughter running off and another's life blasted by a love affair. Is the youngest daughter normal?'
'Patricia?' J.C. beamed. 'Prettiest, smartest filly in town next to my Carmel! Pat's going steady with Carter Bradford. Cart's our new County Prosecutor ... Here we are!'
The real estate man steered his coupé into the driveway of a Colonial-style house sunk into the hillside far off the road. It was the largest house, and the trees on its lawns were the tallest trees, that Ellery had seen on the Hill. There was a small white frame house close by the large one, its windows shuttered.
Mr Queen kept looking at the blind and empty little house he intended to rent all the way up to the wide Wright porch. Then J.C. rang the bell and old Ludie in one of her famous starched aprons opened the front door and asked them what in tarnation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Calamity Town by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1969 Ellery Queen. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.