A sudden cloudburst forces MacDougal Duff to stop his car in front of the home of Mary Moriarty. The history professor turned detective is reclining in his seat, waiting out the torrential rainstorm, when Mary knocks on the car window holding a feverish child and jabbering about a dead woman. After years investigating murders, Mac Duff is not fazed by a dead body, but the sick child moves his heart. He speeds to the hospital, and while the doctor is seeing to the child, he asks Mary about the dead woman. Her name was Brownie, Mary says, and she was poisoned. Unable to resist an interesting death, Mac Duff moves in with the family, pretending to be a distant relation. To his delight, he finds a home corrupted by secrets, whose residents do not hesitate to kill.
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The Innocent Flower
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1972 Jack Lewi
All rights reserved.
Late one Sunday afternoon Mac Duff was poking the nose of his coupé along a side street in New Rochelle, groping for the Shore Road, when the hand of God came down and stopped him at Mary Moriarity's door.
What happened was that the summer rain, changing without any warning into a deluge, put an opaque wall of water all around the car. There was nothing to do but stop and pray that no other blinded car would blunder into him. Duff kept the motor running, but he turned off the windshield wiper since its gasps were desperate, disturbing, and futile. He listened to the weight of the rain. He thought the fact that he could feel it fall was all that made the difference betewen this and being at the bottom of a lake. He rather enjoyed the freakishness of the storm, the queer drowned light, the submerged sensation; but something about it scratched at his nerves just the same.
In three or four minutes the deluge was over, as suddenly as if the rent in heaven's belly had been zipped together. The pattering rain that kept on falling was like sunshine. As Duff's horizons cleared, he saw that he was parked a few feet ahead of a driveway, that in the driveway, in a car not more than thirty feet from where he himself sat, there had been sitting another man, whose startled and not-quite-unknown face looked back over his shoulder. Duff thought: The opposite of the aquarium; one caught land creature looks out of his dry tank and sees another.
The man climbed out, came quickly around a hedge, and opened Duff's door.
"I wonder ..." he began. His eyeglasses had caught one drop which trickled eccentrically past his earnest eye. Duff, who was a noticing man, noticed that the head and shoulders thrust in so close were fairly dry. "I know who you are!" the man said, as if someone had accused him of not knowing. "You're MacDougal Duff. I don't know if you remember—"
"And you are the doctor with the Scandinavian name who testified in the Baxter case," said Duff pleasantly. "That's as close as I can come, sir."
"Christenson," said the doctor. "What I was going to say ..." He flicked a glance down the street behind them. "I've got a little girl in here ... want to get her to the hospital ..." He spoke in spurts. Obviously, he felt hurried. "Going to take her myself, but water's got into my engine. Can't wait for the ambulance now. Want to get her out of the house before the Police Department shows up...."
"Yes?" said Duff, lying low, not betraying his curiosity.
"A woman just died," the doctor said, with another frantic glance behind. "Taffy's got a temperature of a hundred and four. Got to get her out of here. Have you got time to be a Good Samaritan? Have you got the gas?"
"Yes, of course. I'll take her."
"Good. Good. I'l tell her mother." The doctor went up the walk through the rain in a lumbering run with his head lowered.
In the street the water roared and whirled and gurgled, rushing back to the sea or the sewer. Duff raced his engine with a thoughtful toe. A woman has died and the police are coming. The old formula came irresistibly into his mind. That good old parade of interrogatives— What? How? When? Why? Who?
They carried the bundle between them and came at a half-trot. Duff had the door open. The woman got in. "All right, Norry, I've got her." The woman's hair was black, and her eyes were very blue.
"Mary, this is Mr. Duff. Mrs. Moriarity." The blue eyes scarcely saw, him, and Duff said nothing but waded quickly around the car to the driver's seat.
"Don't worry," the doctor was saying, leaning in at the door. "I've called the hospital. They know what to do with you. I'll stay here, Mary. At least for a while. Send Eve back if you see her?" This was a question.
"I don't know," said Mary. "Are you all right, lamb?"
It seemed to Duff, as he got in, that the inside of his car was filled up with tenderness. The woman who sat beside him was weaving it like a warm cocoon around the child she held on her lap. About 95 per cent of her attention, and all of her nervous force, which Duff felt to be great, was turned to a loving, anxious prayer for the little girl in her arms. Duff felt the intensity of that devotion. He considered himself its servant and waited quietly to be directed.
"If Constance comes, maybe she ...?" the doctor said and stopped, leaving it another queston.
"I don't know," the woman said again.
She had pulled back a fold of cloth, and now Duff saw the little girl's face. The exquisite texture of her baby skin was flushed a clear rose, making her look vivid and beautiful. She had a straight little nose, powdered gold with freckles. Under her narrow golden brows, blue eyes, sleepy with fever, looked at Duff and accepted him. He could see the pulse in her temple beating hard where her fair hair swept back.
He said impulsively, "How are you, Taffy?"
Taffy put out her tongue and moistened her pretty mouth. "I'm just fine," she said.
The bachelor heart in Duff's scholarly breast turned over, nor was it ever the same again.
"God bless her," said Mary, "of course she's fine. Down to the corner, turn right. Then I'll tell you. It's not far."
The doctor slammed the door, lifted his hand like a salute, and let them go. They splashed through subsiding torrents. The rain was slackening. Trees looked washed.
"Is she very sick?" Duff asked quietly.
He felt Mary sigh and relax. "As a matter of fact, she's not ... so very." Her voice was almost cheerful. "A high temperature doesn't mean much when they're little."
"How little is Taffy?"
"But you worry," Duff said.
"Yes, I worry. I don't know what I ought to do. I always stay with them when they're sick. I always do." There was a crooning anxiety in her voice. Duff was thinking that there must be healing power in such a loving presence, and so was she, because she went on, "I suppose it's silly. I suppose it's germs. I suppose all it takes is science."
"Who knows," said Duff, "whether that's all it takes? Lightning was all around us before we discovered electricity."
"Um, so it was," she murmured. "Turn left here. But the trouble is"—she blurted out her trouble—"I have five more children, and they home alone with a corpse! That isn't right."
Duff turned left very carefully and steadily. He cleared his throat, swallowing the faint sensation of shock. "No," he said, "that isn't right."
Mary made a little sound, part giggle and part gasp. "A friend, a guest in the house, died quite suddenly," she told him. "Just now." She rested her cheek on Taffy's head and seemed to brood. "My children have never seen death. I don't like to leave them with it. I don't like it myself. I ... hate it! I ought to go back."
They crossed a business street and another and a railroad bridge. "Go around to the right," said Mary. "There it is. Do you see it?"
"Yes," said Duff. "I see it now. But they'll take her away, you know."
"I know," said Mary, "but in the nighttime ... Oh, Lord, I love my children!"
Duff had a capacity for selflessly entering into whatever at the moment concerned a companion. He had a way of approaching a stranger on a level below or deeper than ordinary. People often confided in him quite abruptly, as if they felt him to be really interested, or rather interested in what was real, as indeed he was.
But Mary Moriarity, herself, had put no separating nonsense between them. She hadn't said, "It's good of you to take the trouble ..." He hadn't had to say, "Oh, no trouble at all." She hadn't said, "I don't know how to thank you ..." He hadn't said, "Why, I'm glad to do it. Please don't mention it."
They had begun by not mentioning it and plunged directly into communication.
That was why, perhaps, Mary murmured as if she had forgotten he would hear, "I didn't want her to die. I didn't mean ... to kill her."
"Of course not," Duff said promptly. "But was she killed?"
Mary was looking at Taffy, whose eyes were closed. "Well ... poison ..." she said.
Duff found his own way around a maze of corners and pulled up a little way from the entrance to the hospital building. Mary stirred. He held her by not moving. "I've had some experience with sudden death," he said casually, "quite a lot, in fact. I've dealt before with policemen and newspaper people and all of that. Would you mind if I went back to your house to help out the children? I am free. I could stay the night and keep bogey men away."
Mary Moriarity looked at him. His gray eyes were calm and friendly. "Please don't leave Taffy," he said. Then, deliberately, "I don't hate death any more than most."
Mary's eyes looked startled for an instant, and then they shone with sudden tears. She seemed shaken with relief. She gave a quick little nod of her head that held all the gratitude Duff ever wanted.
He smiled at her and got out and went around. She let him take Taffy, and they went into the hospital.
Duff carried his heavy, hot little burden down the corridor to her bed. They'd put her in a semi- private room, but the second bed was empty. Duff felt pleased. A nurse hovered. Her starch rustled at his back. The machinery of healing was impatient to take over. But Duff drew away very gently. Taffy was so quiet. Her blue eyes had no reproach for anything. She was sick as a little animal is sick, quietly, patiently, as if she knew it would pass ... or it wouldn't. He kissed her limp little fingers and said, "Good night, Taffy."
"Good night," said Taffy serenely. She accepted without surprise this mystery of a tall kind man who had come from nowhere and carried her, and put her down so gently, and kissed her hands.
Mary was standing in the door of the room, talking to a woman in a blue and white nurse's aid uniform. "... vomited this afternoon," she was saying, "and now this fever. But the doctor didn't find anything. It's only because the house is upset. Eve,"—she put her hand on the woman's arm—"Brownie was taken quite suddenly. She's dead."
The nurse's aid was a thin, red-haired young woman who looked tense. She put up her hand as if to ward things off and gasped.
"Mary, what do you mean!"
"I know it's a shock," Mary said in hospital-hushed tones. "But it was a shock to everyone. We don't know, Eve. She was all right one minute, and the next ..."
"My God," said Eve. "Oh, my God!"
Mary spoke sharply. "Will they let me stay here with Taffy? I want to stay here. They'll let me, won't they?"
"What? Oh, yes, I think so. Mary, how awful! Was it her heart?"
A dither, Duff thought, drawing closer. The dithering type, perhaps. He could see the cords in Eve's scrawny neck standing out.
"We don't exactly know," said Mary desperately and greeted Duff with her eyes.
The woman called Eve turned her head. Her skin was pale, with many tiny lines in it. Her teeth were outlined by the thin, fallen flesh around her mouth. Her eyes lay deep in her skull. The illusion of youth that came from her red hair and thin body was dispelled. She looked, close up, very like a death's-head.
"Eve, this is Mr. Duff. Mrs. Meredith, my neighbor."
"How do you do," said Eve in a high-pitched voice very artificially polite.
Duff bowed to her and said quietly to Mary, "How will I tell the children that I may stay? Can you give me any credentials?"
"Oh." Mary pushed a lock of black hair off her forehead. "Tell them," she said with a hint of mirth, "that your mother was one of the Mulligans."
"I'll tell them," said Duff solemnly. "I'm going back now."
Mary's mouth opened to say thank you, but she didn't say it. She looked pleased and excited, like one who had found arms to take against a sea of troubles. Duff went off down the corridor with a certain jauntiness. He heard Eve Meredith's shrill question behind him.
"Mary, who is that!"
Ah, who indeed? he asked himself.
He was in the elevator, going down, when the reaction came. What kind of sentimental old coot was he turning out to be? How in the name of any kind of common sense could he have been induced to promise to spend a night in a strange house with five strange children? Not to mention a corpse, who was strange, too. For what reason?
Because it had seemed to him that an appealing child needed her mother? Because Taffy was so obviously a darling, and her mother loved her so much? Yes. Yes. Even so. Or because Mrs. Moriarity hated and feared the presence of death in her house? Yet she would have gone back and covered over her fear to keep the kids from catching it. Oh, yes, all that. Even so, why should he, Duff, take it upon himself to spare her that ordeal and solve her problem? Mrs. Moriarity, surely, was not so devoid of friends or even, for all he knew, relatives, that she had to depend on someone plucked from the highway. Literally so.
As for that queer sense of unpremeditated friendship, that direct entering into the responsibilities of a friendly state, that discard of preliminaries, much as if they'd met on a battlefield ... Pretty romantic, thought Duff. Some mystic nonsense or other. Mutual, though. There was the catch.
Of course, he conceded, coming earthward, the corpse was an attraction. A musician who stumbled over a grand piano in the backwoods, for instance, would be tempted to run his fingers over the keys. Since the war, private murder, you might say, had occupied less of Duff's time and thought than what use the government could make of his peculiar talents. He had been consulting, advising, snooping, and listening, for a different kind of villainy.
Well, he was in for it. He felt he could permit himself to look forward to the corpse.
The lobby of the hospital was nearly deserted, but as Duff reached the doors to the street he caught up with a man and woman who paused, as he did, to look at the weather. It was raining again, and quite seriously.
The woman was young and upset. She had a bandage near her eye. The man was somewhat older. He held himself very erect with his head thrown back, and he was talking rapidly to her.
"... get you home and have a stiff drink, I don't care what they say. Look, we don't have to wait for a cab. Wouldn't you rather walk? Get wet. It won't hurt us. Some fancy weather." He was batting his eyelashes at Duff in a friendly way.
"Very," said Duff agreeably.
"Lean on me, Bea. Say, didn't you come in with Mrs. Moriarity? Was it one of the kids?"
"Yes, it was Taffy," Duff said.
"Aw, too bad. My name's Walker. Used to know the family. I wondered ... what's the trouble?"
"Why, I don't believe she's very sick," said Duff. "I think the doctor felt she'd be better off here."
"I see. That's good. We had a little smashup. Were you out in that cloudburst? Hit a fence, bunged up the car, but thank God I wasn't going very fast." The man seemed to be rattling along out of sheer nervous reaction. "Got to take the train back to the city. Look, you haven't got a car, have you?"
"I have," Duff said.
The man looked at his watch. "Never mind. We have plenty of time. It's only two short blocks."
"To the station? I'd be very glad to drop you there." Good Samaritan J. Duff, he thought. But it was not quite so.
They got Bea in between them. She was hysterically silent, if there is such a thing, and kept clinging to the man's shoulder. Duff trotted out his ulterior motive, right away.
"I've got to go back to the Moriarity house," he said, "and the trouble is, I don't know the children. I wonder if you could tell me at least their names?"
"You want the kids' names?"
"Please, if you know them."
"Oh. I thought you must be a friend of Mary's...."
"My name is Duff. I happened along in time to be of service. I'm not much more than a stranger. By the way, do you know a woman they call Brownie?"
"Yes ... yes ..." Walker said, rather cautiously.
"It seems that she died rather suddenly this afternoon."
"Brownie!" His voice squeaked with astonishment. The woman, Bea, slumped between them and paid no attention to what they were saying. "Not Brownie! What happend to her? She was a healthy old so-and-so. Excuse me."
"Mrs. Moriarity thinks poison happened to her."
"Holy ...! Look, turn down here. That's right. That's the station. Quaint, isn't it? Well, I'll be! Look, I'd like to do something to help Mary out, but you see how this is. I've got to get back. I work nights. Besides getting my wife home. What a mess, huh? Sucide?"
"I don't know. Would you think so?"
"I certainly wouldn't. Brownie wouldn't want to die. She never was alive, much. Didn't know what she was missing. So why die?"
Excerpted from The Innocent Flower by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1972 Jack Lewi. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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