John J. Malone, defender of the guilty, is notorious for getting his culpable clients off. It’s the innocent ones who are problems. Like Holly Inglehart, accused of piercing the black heart of her well-heeled and tyrannical aunt Alexandria with a lovely Florentine paper cutter. No one who knew the old battle-ax liked her, but Holly’s prints were found on the murder weapon. Plus, she had a motive: She was about to be disinherited for marrying a common bandleader.
With each new lurid headline, Holly’s friends and supporters start to rally. There’s North Shore debutante Helene Brand; Holly’s groom’s press agent, Jake Justus; the madam of a local brothel, and Alexandria’s hand-wringing servants. But not one of them can explain the queerest bent to the crime: At the time of the murder, every clock in the Inglehart mansion stopped dead. And that’s only the first twist in a baffling case of “aunty-cide”—because Alexandria won’t be the last to die.
Making his debut in this fun and funny novel, Craig Rice’s one-of-a-kind Chicago attorney is “an inspired creation . . . an unapologetic champion of the defense bar . . . a defender of the guilty whose contempt for society outstrips his contempt for criminals” (Jon L. Breen, Edgar Award–winning author).
Eight Faces at Three is the 1st book in the John J. Malone Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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She woke slowly and unhappily. Her mouth was painfully dry, her head felt hot and swollen. There was a strange, faraway feeling in her stomach that threatened to materialize into a nearer, more positive and unpleasant, feeling.
What time could it be? She felt for the bed lamp, turned it on, blinked sleepily at the little onyx clock on the bed table.
She rubbed her eyes, sighed, yawned. Surely it must be later than three. She must have been sleeping for more than four or five hours. There had been a dream —
A dream — vague now, receding rapidly into unconsciousness and forgetfulness, but leaving behind an echo, an unpleasant echo. She struggled to bring the dream back to mind, to remember what it had been. Darkness. Something about darkness. And a rope.
A rope. Hanging. That was it. She had dreamed that she was being hanged. Only the rope had kept slipping and slipping. It had slid down over her shoulders and tightened over her arms. No, under her arms.
She stirred uncomfortably. Curious. Her underarms were sore. Could a dream be as real as that? Impossible. But her flesh was sore.
She stretched, yawned, frowned, lit a cigarette and lay smoking it, staring at the ceiling. There had been more to the dream than the hanging. A dream of darkness, of standing in a cramped, dark place, an airless place, swathed in suffocating cloths. Like a coffin. No, not quite like a coffin. She had been standing up, not lying down. A coffin that was standing on end, perhaps.
She shuddered violently, shut her eyes. Silly and absurd to be so upset by a dream. It was all over now. She was awake, and the light was on.
Still, how to account for that sick throbbing in her head, the dryness in her mouth? She had felt perfectly well all day and at bedtime. An early bedtime. She had not had even one drink. The window —
She looked at the window. It was closed. Queer. She was sure that she had opened it before she went to bed. But it was closed now. Perhaps Nellie had come in and closed it. There was snow heaped against the window-pane, and it was bitterly cold outside.
She took a long drink of water, put out her cigarette and prepared to go back to sleep again.
But the clock.
She stared at it, blinked her eyes. The hands still pointed, crazily, to three o'clock. She picked it up and shook it.
Strange. The little onyx clock had never failed before. But now it had stopped, and refused to start again. Even if it did start, it would need to be reset. And she didn't know what time it was.
She turned out the light, nestled down in her pillow.
It must be sometime after three. Might be any hour. She stared at the window. Was it getting light? The combination of winter darkness and new-fallen snow was deceptive. And the mornings were so dark anyway. It might be six or seven o'clock. Perhaps there was only another hour to sleep before Nellie brought in her breakfast tray.
Or perhaps it was only a little after three.
Then she remembered the other thing.
It had been a clock ringing that had wakened her. She remembered lying there, struggling between sleep and waking, hearing that persistent ringing, not very near. Probably from Glen's room. It had kept up for a while, and stopped. By the time she was wide awake it had stopped entirely.
But that was absurd. Glen had no alarm clock. Parkins always woke him. Even if he had an alarm clock, why would it be ringing in the middle of the night?
Or was it the middle of the night?
Imagination! she told herself furiously.
She turned her face from the window, resolved to forget the clock. She would think about something else. About Dick. The way he had smiled at her from the orchestra stand, as though he were playing for her alone. What a row Aunt Alex would kick up when she knew! Wonder what Dick was doing at this hour. Asleep in his room at the hotel? Or just leaving the orchestra stand after the last dancers had gone home?
What time could it be?
If she were to meet Dick in the morning, she must look her best. Meet him, and never, never come back to Aunt Alex's ugly old house again. In — how many hours now?
Surely it must be nearly morning —
What had that ringing been? Had it come from Glen's room?
She must let Glen know somehow. Glen was her twin, all the family she had in the world, except Aunt Alex. An unlike twin, Parkins always said. But still, her twin. Perhaps she could get a word to him before breakfast if there was time. Time.
What time —
She swore softly to herself, If the clock was going, she probably wouldn't give two hoots in hell what time it was. Wouldn't even look at it. Now, when the clock was stopped, she was obsessed by the idea of time. There was no going back to sleep now until she knew what time it was.
And that ringing!
It must have come from Glen's room. But why? What was it? She had to know now.
Well, it was simple enough to find out.
She slid out of bed, shivering in the cold, hunted for her slippers, wrapped her bathrobe around her.
Senseless thing to do, go chasing around the house in the dark and the cold to find out what time it was. It didn't really matter. If it was morning, Nellie and her husband would be stirring around in the kitchen. But the house was as quiet as a grave. A grave. She thought again of her dream and shivered.
It wasn't only that she didn't know what time it was. It was that ringing, a ringing like an alarm clock.
The door of Glen's room was open. She felt gingerly for the light switch. Lights never woke Glen, he always slept like the dead. She pressed the switch, stood blinking for a moment in the light.
Glen was gone.
Glen wasn't in his room. His bed was empty. His bed hadn't been slept in.
Where could Glen be at an hour like this? Aunt Alex would raise the devil if she found out. Glen didn't have a key to the house. No, unless he had bribed Parkins to give him one, as she had.
She sat there worrying for a moment, forgetting her errand. At last she shrugged her shoulders, shook her head. It was none of her affair. Let Glen bury his own dead. Strange, though, for Glen to be out at an hour like this. She looked at his clock.
She didn't believe it.
She picked up the sturdy little leather clock, listened to it, shook it.
The clock had stopped.
Funniest thing she had ever heard of! Both their clocks had stopped, and at the same hour. The same hour and the same minute. Talk about telepathy and such things! She rocked with sudden laughter.
Her laughter stopped short.
Where was Glen?
Glen was gone, his bed had not been slept in.
And both the clocks had stopped, at three.
A sudden panic swept over her. There was a shuddering echo of the strange dream, the dream of hanging and the coffin that stood on end.
And the clocks.
What time was it?
She had to know now!
There was the big clock that stood in the hall —
She ran into the hall, reaching for the light switch as she sped past it, on past her door, past the empty guest room, past the head of the stairs, to where the old clock stood half in darkness.
It wasn't possible, it wasn't true. The old clock in the hall had never stopped since it had been placed there, years before. It couldn't have stopped. It hadn't happened. It wasn't possible.
She stood for a moment, listening.
The dull, woodenish ticking of the old clock, deep-toned and steady, that she had known all her life — she listened for it while waves of hysteria rose to her throat and were choked back again.
Not a sound.
There wasn't a sound from the old clock. The old carved hands were still — the little hand on the three, the big hand on the twelve.
As panic flooded over her, she started to scream, stopped herself. Aunt Alex mustn't be wakened. Aunt Alex mustn't know that Glen was out. Aunt Alex mustn't know, mustn't ever know that she, Holly Inglehart, had been frightened into hysteria by the stopping of clocks.
And then again in the deathlike silence of the old house, she heard it again, distantly yet distinctly, that steady, relentless, persistent ringing.
Somewhere in the old house an alarm clock was ringing.
Nellie — It came from Nellie and Parkins' room.
She ran, as quietly as she could, up the narrow flight of stairs that led to the third floor, to the room Nellie and Parkins shared. As she ran, she turned on light after light, flooding the old house with a radiant blaze. There it was, the door to their room, there would be Nellie, and safety from the terrors that had followed her up the stairs.
And as she reached the door, the ringing stopped — She knocked, waited, knocked again.
No one answered.
Nellie must be there. Nellie slept lightly. Nellie must answer —
She knocked again, louder.
Then she saw that the door was slightly ajar.
She pushed it open, slowly, hesitantly. A shaft of light from the hall fell across the empty bed, the smooth, neat, empty bed, the bed that had not been slept in.
Nellie was gone, Parkins was gone. The bed —
The clock —
There was a cheap alarm clock on the dresser, a painted clock with a strident, off-pitch ring and harsh, clamorous tick.
But it was not ticking now.
She knew what she would see even before she looked, the black painted hands pointing, the big hand to the twelve, the little hand to the three.
The cheap alarm clock stopped at three.
But it wasn't possible. She had heard it ringing, even while she stood outside the door.
She looked at it closely. The alarm was turned on, the alarm hand was set for six.
It hadn't been that clock she had heard ringing!
Forgetting her terror for the moment, she searched the room.
There was no other clock. Only the one that had stopped at three.
Yet in that instant the ringing began again, the same ringing-remorseless, persistent, continual. But again it came from the distance.
It came from Aunt Alex's room.
Aunt Alex would not be gone. Aunt Alex had not left her room for fifteen years, not since paralysis had bound her to a chair. Aunt Alex would know why an alarm clock would be ringing in her room.
She raced down the narrow stairs, through the wide corridor, past the old clock, past the wide staircase, along the hall to Aunt Alex's room, turning on light after light all along the way.
As she reached the door, the ringing stopped. But there was another thing.
The door to Aunt Alex's room was wide open. Aunt Alex, who should have been in bed hours ago (but what time was it?), sat in her chair by the window, facing the door. She sat there without moving, without speaking, her eyes glittering with a strange, unearthly light as the lamp in the hall reflected on them, glittering greenly, like a cat's eyes.
Holly stood in the doorway an instant, clinging to the door. The old woman didn't move. Slowly the girl crept up to her.
The window was open, a freezing wind from the ice-covered lake swept through the room.
Aunt Alex, sitting in front of that open window — Forgetting her fear, the girl rushed to the old woman, felt of her hand.
It was cold, terribly cold, and hard, like ice.
Aunt Alex hadn't known the window was open. Aunt Alex was dead, dead and frozen as stiff as the icicles that hung over the window.
There was something on the stiff pale silk that covered Aunt Alex's withered old breast. Two gaping holes, not large, but terribly dark, and beside them what looked like a handle. She grasped it for one horrified moment, saw that it was a handle, the handle of a knife, protruding from the pale silk.
The room whirled around, she felt herself sinking into some unknown darkness, the darkness that had oppressed her in the dream. But as consciousness fled from her in a rushing stream, one last thing struck into her mind.
The clock. Aunt Alex's little French clock in its little bell glass. The little wheel above the clock that had always whirled back and forth, all day long and all night long. It was not whirling now.
The fragile, gilded hands stood at three o'clock.
She saw it, marked it in her mind, caught at it with a last dissolving remnant of consciousness as she sank back into the welcoming darkness.
The February wind, blowing around the unprotected platform, was damp and raw. Jake Justus, pacing back and forth on the snow-tracked boards, lifted his harassed mind from his personal troubles long enough to reflect that he had never seen quite so desolate a place. No, not in a lifetime spotted with desolate places. And this, he thought critically, in what was supposed to be a classy suburb, too.
He looked longingly toward the little enclosed waiting room.
The blond young man, Dick Dayton, pacing beside him, nodded.
"Might as well go inside. I'd rather die from suffocation than from the cold."
Jake stamped out a cigarette and the two men went into the dingy waiting room. They were an odd contrast. Dayton was slender, with a thinly handsome face, dressed immaculately in what the well-dressed man would be wearing six months later. There was a deepish wrinkle between his eyebrows, worn there by twelve years of trouping across the country with third-rate, second-rate, and finally first-rate dance bands. Now, his own dance band. Dick Dayton and his Boys.
His companion was a tall, rangy man, big-boned and lean, with an indolent slouch. Under an untidy thatch of red hair was an angular, friendly face with watchful eyes and a square jaw. There were wrinkles on his face, too; more than a few had been worn there by his job of press-agenting and managing Dick Dayton.
He looked disconsolately around the little waiting room. It was a forlorn room, smelling of damp wood, sweat, and cheap antiseptic. The benches were painted a dismal brown, the NO SMOKING sign was flyspecked and yellow.
"She's damned late," said Jake Justus, looking at his watch.
Dick nodded, looking out through the steamy window. A snow-packed road led away from the station; beyond it were brown, barren trees and the faint outlines of houses. A noisy little train halted abruptly at the station, disgorged a fat man in a green overcoat, a minister, and a pair of round-faced, giggling school-girls. Then it rattled away toward Chicago. Jake stared after it longingly.
"Of course," he said thoughtfully, "it's none of my business. But I'd say this was a hell of a day to be late."
Dick scowled deeply. "It isn't her fault. If she's late, it's because of something she can't help. That's what worries me."
Jake looked at his watch again, hoping he had made a mistake. He hadn't. It was ten o'clock. They had been waiting on the station platform since long before nine. He hated to think how long it had been since he had been out of bed before nine in the morning. Why couldn't people pick a reasonable hour to elope?
"Of course," he repeated, "you haven't told me all the details yet. But I say she's late, and I say the hell with it."
There was no answer.
"Well," said Jake Justus after a pause, "I only hope that she hasn't run out on you. After getting us out of bed before dawn. Besides," he added thoughtfully, "we'll miss the afternoon papers."
"Sure," Dick told him coldly. "This is just a publicity stunt to you. But it's something more to me."
Jake Justus grinned. "The dream of a lifetime come true, said Dick Dayton, America's idol, as he introduced his beautiful heiress bride to interviewers after a dramatic elopement —"
"Shut up," said Dick Dayton tersely.
"The headlines," said Jake soulfully, "will be something lovely — Angry Aunt pursues Dick and Bride."
"I'm going to get out of this place," Dick said sharply.
Jake followed him through the door. "Provided," he finished, "that she hasn't run out on you."
"All right, she hasn't. But where is she?"
The young orchestra leader frowned anxiously. "If she was going to get here at all, she'd be here now. She's nearly two hours late."
"Nearly, hell. She is."
"Something's happened to her, Jake. Something's gone wrong."
"I suppose Angry Aunt has locked her in her room on bread and water. Don't be a dope. This isn't 1880."
"You don't know her aunt," said Dick with feeling. "She is 1880. And she isn't normal. She might do anything."
"Are you trying to tell me that your girl's aunt is a screwball?"
"I am telling you," Dick said.
Jake shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I'm not going to take up permanent residence here waiting for her. This is the damnedest elopement I ever heard of."
"How was I to know she'd be late?"
"Are you sure you told her the right day?"
"Jake, something's happened to her."
Excerpted from "Eight Faces at Three"
Copyright © 1965 The Estate of Craig Rice.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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