The locals call her the Ballou. An illustrator for a high-fashion magazine, she has been the talk of the upstate town of Sutton ever since she first appeared, paying cash for one of the finest houses on Nicholas Street. Daring, gaudy, and grand, she inspires envy in the women and lust in the men. And in one member of this quiet town, she is about to inspire murder.
The trouble starts when her rakish New York lover moves in full time, scandalizing the prudish Ayers family next door. When the Ayers’ maid pays a social call to the Ballou, she finds her lying dead at the foot of a staircase—gray, cold, and fabulous no more. Suspicion falls on the Ayerses, whose starched exterior hides a wealth of ugly secrets.
From this interlocking narrative told from the perspectives of the citizens of Sutton comes a reminder that no town is too small for murder.
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The Key to Nicholas Street
A Mystery Novel
By Stanley Ellin
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1952 Stanley Ellin
All rights reserved.
When I woke up I could tell just from the feel of things that it was a beautiful Sunday. It was warm, but there was a breeze coming from the river, and every time it made the window shade twist and flap you could see the sunshine running around the walls bright enough to hurt. And there were church bells all over. From Jackson Avenue, and from Five Corners, and even from downtown where St. Alonsus was using its new set that had cost me about three hundred bingo cards and never a winner.
Across the street Mr. Bennauer was already pushing his lawn mower around, and probably stopping to work on the corners with a manicure scissors. They are a great bunch of worriers about their lawns on Nicholas Street, and Mr. Bennauer is the worst of the lot, although lately it came to me that he was always taking his biggest interest in the lawn the same time I got up in the morning to take a couple of breaths of air at the window.
I had never used a nightgown in the hot weather, what with my attic room being so stuffy, and when I used to pull the shade up and lean out of the window Mr. Bennauer would always seem to slow down on the lawn and put the beady eye on me. For a while I hadn't given it a thought because he wore such thick glasses you wouldn't figure he could see his own ten fingers in front of his nose, but then when I passed him on the street he had started to give me the kind of silly smile that would ring a gong in any smart girl's mind, and I had caught on.
Of course, it wasn't my place to just walk up to him and tell him right out to quit acting like an old goat, so I did what I thought was the smart thing. I told Mrs. A about it.
Well, from the way she talked to me you'd wonder who was getting out of line, Mr. Bennauer or me!
"Do you mean to say, Junie," she asked, "that you sleep—that when you go to bed you don't even put on a nightgown?"
I tried to explain in my nicest way that even if the attic room was bigger than the kitchen oven it certainly wasn't much cooler once the summer got under way. But I could tell right off that I wasn't making my point. There's a sort of look she gets at times like that, very sweet and interested, but all it means is that your words are bouncing right back at you. You talk, and it looks like she's listening, but she really isn't. I suppose what she's really doing is marking time until you close your mouth and let her explain things her own way. And the funny thing is that she has such a nice way of doing all this that you don't even feel you have the right to get peeved about it.
"You see, Junie," she said, "the last thing in the world I'd want to do is hurt your feelings, but what you've been doing is really a disgusting habit, isn't it, dear? And, of course, you're not going to do it any more. If you need a nightgown ..."
"I have a nightgown," I said. "I have a couple of nightgowns."
"Then there's no problem at all, is there? It's just one of those little things your mother should have told you, but must have forgotten. And I'm sure she'd be happy to know that someone did take the trouble to explain to you about it."
As if Mrs. A and I both didn't know that the only thing that made my mother happy was all the beer she could hold and a large-sized glass to save her the trouble of having to pour too often.
It's funny how many people there are in the world that you should like more than you do. Here was Mrs. A always being so kind and considerate and thoughtful in her own way, and yet I sometimes found myself wondering. I even wondered if Mr. A's going in and out of the attic storeroom now and then wasn't what had set her off so hard on the nightgown business. If that was what she thought she should have known me better.
Some of the other Five Corners girls I know who went in for housework tell me they'd rather have the husband around than the wife any day of the week. In my opinion this is talk from females with only one idea in mind: when wife's away hubby will play—and pay and pay. I am not the narrow-minded type myself. At age nineteen I have learned that it takes all kinds of people to make a world, and that at least fifty per cent of them are men itching to play with anything in skirts that comes walking by. And if a girl wants to play it that way, good luck to her, I say.
But I personally didn't want it that way, and I must say for Mr. A that he did not make it any great strain for a girl to stay on the straight and narrow around him. Of course, it could be that when a man gets to age forty-seven the machine tends to run down somewhat, but, still and all, when such as Clark G or Humphrey B turns up in the latest picture at the Orpheum it would seem to be otherwise. There you have a pair of males who look as if they will stand up and be counted among the men even when the wheel chair is rolled around for them, and if it happens to be me who is elected to push that wheel chair around, well and good, say I.
Whatever the reason, one thing was clear. Mrs. A might be willing to stand in as mother to little Junie, but Mr. A was certainly never going to play anything more than grandfather. And whether he inherited it from Mr. A or figured it out all by himself, young Richard also made it easy to steer around the birds and bees issue in 161 Nicholas Street.
The first few days I was in 161 I couldn't quite figure out the boy. Here was something that looked as if it could have been posing on a magazine cover for an all-American something or other, but whatever topic of the day you would figure might be of interest, such as the latest at the Orpheum or the Yanks' chances of taking the pennant, just rang up No Sale.
It took me a little while to put the picture together and realize that Dick could become practically gossipy about Beethoven's number umpteen, or the latest in long-haired literature, but as far as just plain living was concerned the boy was strictly out on his feet. But out.
To give him all the credit that's coming to him he did volunteer to help me wash the dinner dishes the first few days I was at the house, and I can't say he was revolted at having to reach around me every time he wanted to take a dish from the drying rack. But evidently I wasn't able to supply that little something that Beethoven could give him, and after those few days dish-washing was strictly a solo performance. Which, of course, was all right too, considering that Bob might walk in the kitchen door any time, and if he caught the Prince reaching around me a little too close there would be more than broken dishes to worry about. Bob Macek, I should note here, is a young man who hates to waste a moment of his young life, and besides slicing steaks at Sharf's butcher shop during the week and pitching some very good ball for Sutton on week ends, likes to make a full-time job of Jealousy, which, so long as I am the party involved, is quite all right with me.
If young Richard had any other interest in life besides the Arts with a capital A it was Mrs. A herself, and the same can be said about his sister, Bettina. As I once told Mrs. A, when the time comes that Bob and I can just settle back on the front porch and look around at our life's work and find that we have turned out a pair of kids who think as much of us as Dick and Bettina think of their mama, well, we can tell ourselves we've done a good job all around. And, said I, teasing her a little, if there was any trick to it would she please come across now and Tell All. It might save a lot of heartburn later on.
"If you really love your children, Junie," said she, "you'll find yourself getting it back with interest." All that it needed, the way she said it, was some organ music in the background, but I think she really meant it.
Anyhow, adding up the A's, Mr. and Mrs., Dick and Bettina, your total would be just about the most solid family in Sutton. And why an outfit like this should be afflicted with someone like Mr. Matthew Chaves is something calculated to make a liar out of the one who thought up that line about Justice Triumphs.
Bettina, of course, was most to blame because she was the one who brought him into the house, but, knowing the Chaves as I learned to, I would say it was just as likely he looked around, liked what he saw, and walked in himself. He had that way about him, and, more than that, he could make you think you actually did invite him in and were now elected to cater to him.
To show you what I mean, the first look I ever had of him I thought, well, here's another case looking for a handout, and what he's doing using the front door, I don't know.
He needed a shave, and he was dressed—to use the word loosely—in old slacks and a tee-shirt that was torn on one shoulder, and he was wearing a pair of moccasins so wornout and tired-looking that you could have rolled them up and put them away in your pocket. And, of course, he had that cigarette dangling in the corner of his mouth. He must take showers with that cigarette in his mouth.
I will admit that what was in the clothes looked a lot better than the clothes themselves, if you were willing to take a second look. That black curly hair and those gray eyes were a combination any girl would give her eyeteeth for, and although he wasn't too big he did look like something that a thoughtful character would rather walk around than try to push off the sidewalk.
But he had that way about him that was calculated to pull a file across your teeth at first sight. The way he stood there as if he had enough money in his pocket to buy the house and was wondering whether it was worth it or not, and the way he squinted at me through the cigarette smoke when Bettina called me in. It wasn't as if there was anything in that look to make me blush if I were the blushing kind, which, thank God, I am not, but I can say that meeting his eye gave me the kind of feeling a microbe must get when the professor peeks at it through the microscope. You could just see that eye squinting at you, and behind it, nothing. Blank. A stone wall.
And the way Bettina was looking at this character was a picture in itself. Here was a girl who, despite being twenty-two and one of the nicer-looking teachers in the local school, strapped herself into a girdle a size too small, used lipstick so carefully that she might as well have saved herself the trouble, and told me the week before that she didn't believe any girl should neck with a man until she was engaged to him. And here she was looking at this beachcomber like something fourteen years old waiting for the latest swoon-sensation to come out of the stage door!
Mister, I thought, you may not know it, but either you are now engaged right up to your ears, or you are giving a certain school teacher a whole new set of ideas to work on.
"Junie," said the Princess, and how easy it was to see that she was struggling to stay on an even keel, "this is Mr. Chaves." Pronouncing it Shah-vez.
"I'm pleased to meet you, sir," said I, playing Little Junie, the Perfect Domestic, and wondering what this was all about.
"Mr. Chaves," put in the Princess, "was supposed to be visiting Miss Ballou next door, but as it turned out she wasn't home, so I told him he was perfectly welcome here. You could find something for him to eat, couldn't you, Junie?" she asked in a voice that said if I couldn't there would be a certain school teacher listed under the suicides tomorrow.
So, it was a handout after all, though not quite the usual kind. But what really had me puzzled was the picture of this Chaves boy visiting the Ballou. I could see him coming to dig up her garden maybe, but Bettina had come down hard on the "visiting," which meant things were on a social level. And if the picture of Bettina playing hostess to the Monster looked strange, the picture of the Ballou doing ditto could give it cards and spades.
Actually, my only feelings about the Ballou were admiration, because there, say I, was what any girl would dream of looking like when she reaches the years of discretion. When you can take the female form and wrap it in a tweed suit that doesn't do any more for it than a burlap bag would, and stick its feet in a pair of five-pound brogues, and still have it bring the Nicholas Street wolves to attention like a bugle call you must have something to work with. Which the Ballou had from the brogues right up to that gorgeous red hair.
Of course, the Ballou was strictly city material, which is always an asset since there is something that New York City can give a woman that even Filhnore Street in Sutton can't offer; She did art work for half those big magazines you see on the newsstand, and just how much she got from it you can judge by the fact that when she was shopping for a place in Sutton and decided that 159 Nicholas was just the thing she paid cash down for it on the spot!
That, and some other little items like a ranch mink that is worth laying your life down for, a Cadillac convertible with everything in it but the kitchen sink, and the small fortune she paid me for an occasional cleaning of the house and to keep tabs on her water heater and stove was enough to show that all this stuff about artists in garrets was now definitely a thing of the past. Or, if it wasn't, the Ballou had her own private radium mine tucked away somewhere, and just wasn't telling.
Anyhow, knowing the Ballou, what would any smart girl think if something showed up in yesterday's whiskers and a torn shirt claiming to be a guest of the lady, and since he had not found her home, offering himself for adoption to the first bidder? First bidder in this case being Bettina herself, a girl who had somehow gotten to age twenty-two thinking that when a strange man offered a lollipop to a little girl it was because he wanted to make sure her system had plenty of nourishing sugar in it.
Well, that is what I thought, and that is what I told Bettina as soon as I could get her off into the kitchen away from the Chaves.
"And," I told her, "I want to make it clear right now that if there is anything missing from the house when Prince Charming has gone you are going to do all the explaining to your mother and father."
Her face went absolutely white. "Junie," she said, "how you could even think such a thing ...!"
I told her how I could. And why.
She looked at me pityingly. "As it happens," she said, "Mr. Chaves works for one of the magazines that Miss Ballou sells her pictures to, and they are very close friends. She told him to visit her any week end, and that is exactly what he is doing here. And if he chooses to dress in old clothes, that's his business."
I told her that even if he were dressed up in the best suit you could buy in Hibbard's on Fillmore Street there was something about him—something about those looks and that expression ...
Her lips tightened so that for a second she looked all school teacher. "I happen to find him an unusually attractive young man," she said, "and as far as judging someone from his looks and his expression I might say that I've seen Bob Macek at times when he looked positively villainous!" And with that she walked out of the kitchen quick before I could tell her that I wasn't going to marry Bob for his beauty, which is something she knew anyhow.
As it turned out, of couse, she was part right, and I was part right. Bettina's part was that the Chaves was everything he claimed to be, and my part was that he was a lot more than that. He had that mean streak in him, and he had Bettina so dizzy that he could get away with it, too. And, naturally, he could get away with it with Mr. and Mrs. A because they would rather have dropped dead than done something to make Bettina unhappy.
I was dying to talk to the Ballou about him because, from the way he was at home with her she probably could have told plenty. But after all, one doesn't just walk up to a woman and ask personal questions about some man she knows, especially when one has no idea of how things stand between said man and said woman. The fact that the Chaves took to coming up week ends regularly and would spend part of his time with the Ballou and part with Bettina as if he hated to deprive either of them of his royal presence didn't seem to bother the Ballou, at least not on the outside. But then, you can't even, tell that way, and certainly not with the Ballou, who didn't even blink an eye when I happened to rip one of the pictures she had all ready for some magazine, and she had to do it all over again.
Excerpted from The Key to Nicholas Street by Stanley Ellin. Copyright © 1952 Stanley Ellin. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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